“I wrote like fire. This was all done in a year. I took all of these documents everywhere I went. I was obsessed.”
That’s how Cheryl Wills describes her experience writing Die Free, A Heroic Family Tale, which tells the story of her great-great-great grandfather, Sandy Wills—a teenager who ran away from the plantation where he had been enslaved, to join the Union Army and fight with the United States Colored Troops in the American Civil War.
A question planted in childhood
Cheryl Wills, a reporter and anchor with NY1 News, served as the station’s Health Reporter for six years, and received an honorary doctorate degree from the New York College of Health Professions in 2005, as well as a CUNY Medical School Achievement Award.
Her tenacity as a journalist proved useful as she pieced together her family lineage.
She started with her father, Clarence Douglas Wills, who served as a Marine paratrooper in the Vietnam War then attended BMCC, on the GI Bill. “I came here at about four years old and watched him in his cap and gown,” she says.
The oldest of five children, Cheryl Wills was 13 when her father was killed in a tragic motorcycle accident on the Williamsburg Bridge. As she was looking at his flag-draped coffin and reading what she describes as “a very flimsy funeral program,” she says, “I couldn’t help but ask, ‘Who are the Wills?’”
She knew the family harkened back to Haywood County, Tennessee, but no relatives remained there, and little else was known about their history.
“It bothered me my entire childhood and into my adult life,” she says.
The legacy unfolds
Cheryl Wills solved the mystery of her family background, by “fooling around on the Internet one night and surfing a genealogical website,” she says.
“I put in my father’s last name, and 'Haywood County, Tennessee', and an incredible legacy unfolded.”
Almost immediately, she found herself introduced to “Sandy Wills, USCT [United States Colored Troops],” and quickly sought the services of a professional genealogist.
“He called back within three hours,” she says. “He was shocked. Edmund Wills, a plantation owner, plucked a 10-year-old boy away from his family on an auction block,” and that boy, Sandy—Cheryl’s ancestor—was made to take "Wills" as his last name.
Six teenagers become soldiers
In addition to Sandy, five other boys had been “plucked” by Edmund Wills around that time: James, Andy, Richard, Dick and Mack, all mandated the Wills last name, and spending the rest of their childhood on the Wills plantation.
By the time the boys were teenagers, the Civil War was raging, Cheryl explains, and when news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached the Wills plantation, all six of them—by then, young men about 18 years old—made their escape to Columbus, Kentucky, where they enlisted to fight in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) Fourth Heavy Field Artillery unit of the Union Army.
Details of their enlistment are confirmed in over 5,000 military records housed in the National Archives, and when Cheryl Wills sought to retrieve them, a staff person told her, “You’ll have to pay by the page”—which she was happy to do.
“It was the best investment I ever made,” she says. “This was my legacy I was purchasing.”
That legacy includes enlistment documents on which each of the Wills men reports his occupation as “slave”—all but one, Sandy Wills.
“Imagine the ‘hallelujah’ I had, when I imagined him walking up to that certification officer and defying him to certify him as ‘farmer’,” Cheryl Wills says.
Eventually, Sandy Wills returned to Haywood County and married a young woman named Emma, who had also grown up there.
As did many former slaves, the two became sharecroppers, says Cheryl Wills, “a different kind of enslavement. For every dollar they earned, they would owe $1.25.”
Despite their hardships, though, the couple raised nine children, and with each birth, Emma—who had been denied an education, as a child—apparently asked someone else to inscribe the infant’s name and date of birth in her bible.
“She was in that first generation to be able to keep their children, and not lose them at the slave auction," says Cheryl Wills. The family grew and remained in the tiny enclave of Brownsville, Tennessee, and when Sandy Wills died at the age of 50, Emma Wills applied to the federal government for her husband’s pension.
Her application was denied.
“So she rolled up her sleeves and hired a lawyer,” says Cheryl. “She filed hundreds of depositions back and forth.”
Each of those depositions—stored over a century in the National Archives—shows Emma Wills’ “humble ‘x’” in place of a signature, says Cheryl Wills. “The documents would ask, ‘Please provide proof of your husband’s'—or Emma’s—'birth’, knowing full well, it didn’t exist.”
Finally, one letter from the federal government read as follows: “This is our final correspondence. Please provide proof of the children of Sandy Wills”—and the birth entries in the bible of Emma Wills were submitted, and accepted as certification.
Emma's determined battle with beaurocracy was over, and she received a pension for herself and her nine dependent children.
“Now when I’m at book signings for Die Free, I sign my name with special boldness, in honor of Emma’s ‘x’,” says Cheryl Wills.
Finding and celebrating the story of her family history is bittersweet for Cheryl Wills.
Her own father, she says, while highly awarded for his valor as a paratrooper and later, for his bravery as a New York City Firefighter, was disappointing as a parent.
“Had he known this story, that his great-great grandfather stood by his nine children in a one-room shack, he might have stood by his own children and family,” she says. “If you do not know your legacy, you become like a leaf in the wind.”
At the same time, she acknowledges that her family legacy might have remained undiscovered for so long, because Sandy Wills himself was undoubtedly cautious about bringing attention to it.
“The Klan was born in Tennessee,” Cheryl says, “and if you were a Black soldier who helped topple the Confederacy, you didn’t necessarily tell your kids about that and risk the wrong people hearing it.”
Her family's story, she says, is also an important part of women’s history.
“This is all of your stories," she told the audience at BMCC. "Search out the Emma’s and the mothers in your family, and let them lift you up.”
Daughters of history
In a question-and-answer session following Cheryl Wills’ talk, students and staff members shared their own experiences of searching for family history.
“The U.S. Census starts in 1870 for Black people,” Cheryl told them, adding that the Census has gathered not just dates and names over the years, but information about people's lives. By reviewing the 1910 Census records, she said, she learned that “every one of Emma and Sandy Wills’ children could read and write.”
For students whose families trace back to countries outside the United States, she suggested that they “search the court records, and search for any property they might have owned. There’s probably some kind of deed record.”
One member of the audience, BMCC professor of health education and ethnic studies Olivia Cousins, shared that she has traced her lineage to Ezekiel Gomer, a descendent of enslaved Africans who fought as a young man, in the Revolutionary War.
As with Cheryl Wills, the teenage soldier in Professor Cousins’ family history had an impact on her life today.
For one thing, being descended from Ezekiel Gomer has made her eligible to join the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), a non-profit lineage organization. The DAR chapter Professor Cousins belongs to was co-founded by Wilhelmena Rhodes Kelly, also a woman of African descent; in fact, five of the 13 women in that DAR chapter in Queens, are women of color.
“It’s in the telling of the story, that you realize it wasn’t just one, but there are legions of us,” said Professor Cousins. “It’s a story of how our people moved through revolution and rebellion. It’s about claiming our space in that story.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This event was a collaborative effort of Eric Glaude and the Counseling & Advisement Center; John Gallagher and the BMCC Media Center; Deborah Parker and the Women's Resource Center, and the BMCC Organization for Student Veterans.