BY CHERYL WILLS
When I was an elementary school student in the Rockaways during the 1970s, I sincerely wish that I had known that I was a direct descendant of an enslaved Tennessee man who fought for his freedom during the Civil War.
His name was Sandy Wills. I was clueless about my family’s incredible legacy that started on cotton plantations in Tennessee and extended to my birth in Queens.
I wasn’t the only one left in the dark. My dad, Clarence Wills, was actually born in spring of 1942 in the vicinity of that awful plantation in Haywood County about 30 miles south of Memphis, and no one told him about Sandy Wills either.
His dad, Fred Wills, literally picked cotton from the very same plantation in the 1920s and 1930s, and no one in his family spoke of the pain or the powerful stories hidden beneath the fertile Tennessee soil.
It was not until a century and a half later that I, a NY1 Anchor who loved telling stories, decided to dig into my own story. I was shocked by what I found during my painstaking online research from census reports, genealogy and military websites, and the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C.
The first “exclusive” was that an ambitious farmer and plantation owner named Edmund Wills purchased my ten-year-old great-great-great grandfather at a slave auction in Tennessee in 1850. Whoa!
I finally cracked the case of where our last name came from. There are millions upon millions of African Americans who carry the last name of plantation owners and they have no idea of its origin: Wills, Jackson, McLaughlin, Davis, Robinson.
When enslaved Africans were sold, they were forced to take on the surname of their new owner.
The next shock was that Grandpa Sandy befriended five young energetic boys who resided on the Wills plantation. Their names were James Wills, Andy Wills, Mack Wills, Dick Wills and Richard Wills. They were all under the age of 10 in 1850.
The Civil War broke out in April of 1861. In the summer of 1863, Grandpa Sandy and his unheralded band of brothers made a run for it.
They escaped Edmund Wills’ plantation and enlisted in the United States Colored Troops, a division of President Lincoln’s Union Army. In the blink of an eye, the former enslaved men became proud soldiers.
During my research, I found each and every military enlistment form, which brought tears to my eyes. The records yield important details about them right down to their height and the color of their eyes. Sandy, James, Andy, Mack, Dick and Richard quite literally were able to speak to me from the grave!
The Wills soldiers served in the United States Colored Troops from 1863 until 1866. All of them survived the war except Richard Wills. They were one of approximately 180,000 black Union soldiers who performed their duties with tremendous dignity and the Wills men were all honorably discharged.
I proudly display Grandpa Sandy’s discharge certificate on my living room wall. It’s the reason that I’m free today.
In 2015, I decided to give to students what I wish I had as a kid: the gift of knowing your family legacy. I wrote a picture book called The Emancipation of Grandpa Sandy Wills, which chronicles my discovery of my long lost ancestor and inspires children to create their own family trees and track down their own heroes.
Even though I’m a busy television journalist and work around the clock, I take time out of my weekly schedule to visit schools and remind students that the most important history lesson is your own.
When I learned about the Civil War in the Rockaways, no one – and I mean no one – taught me about the United States Colored Troops who helped power Lincoln’s struggling Union Army to victory.
And no one even hinted that I, a skinny brown girl from Hammel Housing projects, might have a family history that contributed something to the powerful tapestry of the United States of America.
As a result, I am stronger, bolder, and prouder than I have ever been. That’s what happens when you know who you are.
And I now spend my precious time shining a light on my family tree so students reconnect with their lost ancestors and walk in their own light of liberty.
Cheryl Wills is an award-winning journalist and host of “In Focus with Cheryl Wills” and the nightly primetime show “Live at Ten” with NY1 News. She is the author of Die Free: A Heroic Family Tale, The Emancipation of Grandpa Sandy Wills and Emancipated: My Family’s Fight for Freedom. She lectures at schools across the country. To learn more about Cheryl’s research, visit diefreethebook.com.