cheryl wills*When award-winning television anchor Cheryl Wills discovered that her great-great-great grandfather, Sandy Wills, was a runaway slave who joined the fight for freedom in the Civil War, she embarked on a search to find out more about the ancestor who demonstrated the same spirit and heart that she knew in her beloved father, a remarkable but flawed man, who died when Cheryl was thirteen, and who never knew his family legacy.

Die Free: A Heroic Family Tale (Bascom Hill Publishing, $24.95.) is a touching chronicle of the author’s yearning for her father both while he was alive and after his untimely death at thirty-eight years old.  “There’s a comma after that fateful night on the bridge, not a period,” stated Wills.

“There was much more to his life than my dad’s transgressions, spectacular though they were, and his legacy proves that his errors in judgment are but a footnote in an otherwise breathtaking walk on the wild side for the thirty-eight years that Clarence Wills walked this earth.”

From Haywood County, Tennessee, in the 1860s, to New York City in the twentieth century, the unvarnished truth about the Wills’ family roots, ever entwined in passion, music, and faith, is a story full of rich detail and memorable characters.

The Manhattan born and raised author reaches back two centuries to provide history and context to a fascinating and vivid picture of an American family, descendents of enslaved Africans who, generation after generation, “cracked open the window of freedom.”

The cherished commentator was inspired to write the book after coming across an item in Ancestry.com.  “One day in 2009, I was looking into my family history on Ancestry.com and discovered Sandy Wills.  He is my great-great-great grandfather and, at the height of The Civil War, he escaped from his slavemaster, Edmund Wills, and joined the United States Colored Troops and fought valiantly until the war’s end in 1865,” she stated.

“Had my father, a New York City firefighter, lived longer he would have learned that he most likely inherited his bravery from Sandy — a lowly slave turned courageous soldier who risked his life for the freedom of his future children and grandchildren,” she further explained.

Wills’ roots in the United States military run deep.  Her father, Clarence Wills, served honorably during the Vietnam era and her maternal grandfather Hardy Ford served during World War I in a segregated unit overseas.

Her great-great-great grandfather, Sandy Wills, was a private in the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War.  Her father was also among the first wave of Black firefighters to integrate the oldest engine company in New York — Engine 1, Ladder 24.

“My ‘two fathers’ — Sandy and Clarence — have much to say from the other side of the veil, and it is my honor to present their legacy to the world.”

The cherished anchor and reporter is a nationally recognized award-winning anchor and reporter for Time Warner Cable’s flagship cable news network New York 1 News based in New York City which is aired on select cable systems throughout the United States and Japan’s MXTV.  Wills who has been with the news channel since its launch in 1992, is one of the station’s most distinguishable journalists for breaking news and special coverage.

As a television journalist, the esteemed anchorwoman has been a reliable guide through everything from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to moderating televised discussions about the presidency of Barack Obama.

On March 25, 2011, Wills was invited to speak before the General Assembly of the United Nations about the impact of slavery on her family during the UN’s International Remembrance of Victims of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  As a popular and engaging public speaker she has appeared before audiences across the country.  She is also a blogger for The Huffington Post and contributes to Essence.com.

The consummate newscaster takes great pride in being designated the newly founder and commander of the New York Chapter of the Sons & Daughters of the United States Colored Troops – a national organization of Civil War descendants who raise awareness about Black soldiers who served during The Civil War based in Washington, DC.  With that platform, she raises awareness about the contributions of the 200,000 Black soldiers who valiantly fought during The Civil War and teaches youngsters about The Civil War era.

Wills has received numerous awards for her work including New York Press Club and AP Awards, the YMCA National Black Achievers in Industry Award, and the Carl T. Rowan Leadership in Media Award as part of the 25th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Awards.

In 2010, McDonald’s honored Wills as a broadcasting legend during a regional ad campaign that was featured in their restaurants.  Along the way, she has picked up New York Press Club and AP Awards for her reporting.

Wearing so many successful hats, it was just a matter of time before she caught the attention of Hollywood producers.  As a result, Wills has played herself in a number of major motion pictures including “Freedomland” starring Samuel Jackson and “The Brave One” with Jodie Foster and Terrence Howard.

She was also featured prominently in a Panasonic Commercial that was broadcast globally.  Her acting work has also included playing herself in an episode of NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Wills is a graduate of the famed S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University.  In recognition of her career, she was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from New York College of Health Professions in May of 2005.

She is the current vice president of The New York Chapter of The National Association of Black Journalists.  She is also an active member of The Inner Circle of City Hall Journalists, The New York Press Club, The Links Inc., and The Screen Actors Guild.

On March 25, 2011, Wills made history as the first journalist invited to speak at the United Nations General Assembly Hall for The International Remembrance of Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade where she read passages from her book, “Die Free” which was broadcast live around the world on UNTV.

On April 6, 2011 Ancestry.com and The National Archives invited Wills to make a presentation about her family connections to the Civil War Veterans at the National Archives Headquarters in Washington, DC.  Her presentations made national headlines with coverage by major national media including The CBS Evening News, The Washington Post and The Associated Press.

The “Die Free” book – with a foreword by Terrie M. Williams — tour has taken her all over the world, including Senegal, West Africa — where she presented her story at the 2011 World Summit of Mayors Leadership Conference before an audience of international politicians, dignitaries and journalists from around the globe.  “Die Free” is available on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Borders and bookstores nationwide.

Wills and her husband, John Jr., have one son, John III.  They live in a suburb of New York City.  The eldest of five children, she is a mentor to her brother, Clarence Wills Jr., who was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, and she is guiding his career as a cartoonist.

die free

Excerpt from Chapter 3 — An Ancestry of Adversity

Finally, on August 27, 1863, the slaves became soldiers. They stood in line at Fort Halleck, home to the 4th Field Heavy Artillery, Company F and observed the activity of the Union’s busy federal camp. They were not the first slaves to make it there nor would they be the last. Their first order of business was to answer the questions from the enlistment officer. Lieutenant G.W. Fettermann filled out the rectangular form for each of the Wills men in what was called a Company Descriptive Book. The weary men answered the questions as best they could.

“My name is Mack Wills,” he said.

When asked his age, Mack said eighteen. Of course, he didn’t really know his exact age or birthday, but he probably knew that he had to be at least eighteen years old to fight in the Great War between the states. In fact, they all said they were eighteen except Andy, who declared he was nineteen. An assistant may have used a measuring tape to determine Mack’s height, which was listed at five feet, six inches. Lt. Fettermann probably didn’t bother to look deep into Mack’s eyes and flippantly wrote that he had black eyes, black hair, and a black complexion. In actuality, Mack was probably a deep brown, but what would a white officer see? Everything in his world was either black or white; that was part of the reason this terrible war had to go forth.

When asked where Mack was born, he said, “Nashville, Tennessee.” But the most startling and downright repulsive part of the form is where it says occupation. As he did with his other entries on the enlistment form, Lt. Fittermann wrote, in his most beautiful cursive penmanship, “slave.”

Upon first seeing this, it literally took my breath away. Occupation: slave.

I couldn’t peel my eyes away from the reprinted original scanned records from the National Archives. Occupation: slave. Really? Was slavery really a means of earning a living? Honestly?! Slavery is not an activity in which a person is engaged; that would be an occupation. Slavery is not a profession, a livelihood, or a vocation. Slavery is many things, but one thing it is not is an occupation. To add insult to injury, in the “remarks” section of the form, Lt. Fittermann added, “Owned by Edmund Wills Haywood Co. Tenn.” As if to say, if the war is lost and the Confederacy wins, these slaves should be legally returned to Edmund Wills.

One careful and analytical look at this enlistment form and it’s clear: slavery was not only disastrous for blacks, but for slaveholders as well. They had become amoral and demoralized toward blacks and they lost all sense of decency and compassion for people whose skin tones were different than their own. The fact that a distinguished officer in uniform could write, presumably without missing a beat, that a human being in America was a slave, a condition he most certainly would not have accepted for himself or his own children, is appalling. It would have been preferable to write something like “not applicable.” Occupation: Slave, yet another disturbing footnote in the annals of Civil War history.

“James Wills, sir,” he stated to Mister Fettermann. It was the same drill. The enlistment officer noted that James stood five-feet-eight-and-a-half inches and it turns out he may have been just a few months shy of his eighteenth birthday. Documents show that James Wills, who later changed his name back to his father’s surname of Parker, declared his birthday as November 30, 1845. He more than likely just made up that date in later years for legal reasons. James was the younger biological brother of Dick and, unlike the rest, he and his brother documented that his father was named Dick Parker and his mother was named Caroline Parker, both of whom were presumably born sometime in the 1820s. The couple probably married in a sham of a ceremony where the bride and groom were told to hop over a broom, and the officiating minister, overseer, or master declared, “Till death or distance do you part.”

Slave marriages were not recognized in the State of Tennessee. Both James and Dick were born on Edmund Wills’ plantation, which means their parents may or may not have remained on the plantation after their escape. James hair, eyes, and complexion were duly noted as black. The disheartening classification of “slave, owned by Edmund Wills, Haywood Co Tenn” was also jotted down.

“Haywood County, sir.” That’s where Richard Wills said he was born. Lt. Fittermann documented that Richard was eighteen years old and stood five-feet-six-and-a-half inches. He jotted the word “black” for Richard’s complexion, eyes, and hair.

“I don’t know, sir,” was Andy’s reply when asked where he was born. He was the only Wills man among the group who didn’t know when or where he came into the world. It was a brief response that probably passed without notice, but his unsettling response was devastating in its form, and lasting in its impact. Andy stood at five-feet –five-inches tall, and he had no idea how he got to Edmund Wills’ plantation. For all he knew, he sprung up out of the ground just like a turnip seed and just happened to be a living, breathing thing. He was very close to my Great-great-great grandfather Sandy, and in a general affidavit filed after the war, he testified that he had even slept in the same shack as Sandy when they were slave children, testifying that he had met Sandy when he was nine years old. Andy had eyes, but no visual comprehension; he could not conceptualize his earliest years but this was the first time he could actually envisage a future. Andy’s enlistment into the United States Colored Troops gave his life new meaning. Going forward from this point in his life, he could account for his whereabouts and his mission on earth. After the war, he would call himself Andrew, rather than the nickname Andy; it was a spirited move that helped him to define himself, at last.

August 27, 1863, was Independence Day for all four of these men. It was that great getting-up morning where they found the steel in their spines and the fire in their eyes. This was the day that they commenced a bridge between that great gulf separating slavery and freedom. Pro-slavery mutants had hoped the brains of black slaves had atrophied with the absence of education, but they gambled and lost. The minds of these gutsy and bewitching African men were as sharp as the bullwhip that scarred their broad backs. The time had come for these soldiers to lash back at those who would die to keep their lives obscured in that awful netherworld of bondage. James, Andy, Richard, and Mack likely didn’t realize they were making history. They could not identity a single letter of the alphabet except for an X, nor could they add or subtract. But, they could point and shoot; it was time to give the devil his due.

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Upcoming Appearances

May 17, 2012
Host, Elmhurst Hospital Center’s 180th Anniversary Gala
Terrace on the Park, Queens

May 5, 2012
Host, AHRC Annual Gala, Grand Hyatt, Manhattan

May 4, 2012
Host, AABR Annual Gala, Terrace on the Park, Queens

April 21, 2012
An Evening of Elegance and Empowerment for Women of Color, The Schomburg Center, Harlem; Book signing to Follow

April 7, 2012
“A Sip of Elegance” Greater Refuge Temple, Harlem, 1pm; Booksigning to Follow

March 31, 2012
Emcee, 11th Annual National Black Writer’s Conference

Medgar Evers College 6pm

March 30, 2012
Host, United Nations Slavery Memorial

Apollo Theater, Harlem 7pm

March 4, 2012
Women in the Making Literary Tea, Manhattan

March 3, 2012
Host, Jackie Robinson Foundation Mentoring and

Leadership Conference Keynote Luncheon, noon

February 29, 2012
Host, Black History Month Awards

Greater New York Chamber of Commerce, 6pm
Booksigning to Follow

February 17, 2012
Harlem Dowling Black History Month, 4pm

February 16, 2012
Black History Month Speaker, Bellevue Hospital, 5pm

Booksigning to follow

Audrey J. Bernard is an established chronicler of Black society and Urban happenings

audrey j. bernard