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“Die Free: A Heroic Family Tale”: Cheryl Wills Uncovers Family’s History from Slavery to Freedom

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In this year marking the 150th anniversary year of the Emancipation Proclamation, we speak to NY1 anchor Cheryl Wills, who uncovered the story of her great-great-great-grandparents, Sandy and Emma Wills. Sandy was a slave who escaped from his master and joined the United States Colored Troops to fight in the Civil War. Wills based her book, “Die Free: A Heroic Family Tale,” on thousands of documents from the National Archives. The book’s title comes from a quote by Frederick Douglass: “Who would be free themselves must strike the blow. Better even die free than to live slaves.” We speak to Wills one day after the United Nations marked its sixth annual International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Somi, an American singer-songwriter of Rwandan and Ugandan descent, performing Friday night at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City as it marked the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. During the “Forever Free Concert,” Somi dedicated her performance to the Nigerian literary icon Chinua Achebe, who has died at the age of 82.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we turn right now to our final segment. On Monday, the U.N. marked its sixth annual International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The almost 400-year period saw the largest forced migration in history. From 1501 to 1830, four Africans crossed the Atlantic for every one European. During the inhumane exodus, Africans were spread to many areas of the world, but most of them arrived in cramped slave ships at ports in the Americas and the Caribbean islands. The U.N.'s week-long series of events to mark this dark chapter of human history comes during March, which is internationally recognized as Women's History Month. During one of the U.N.'s panels, Sasha Turner, assistant professor of history at Quinnipiac University, drew connections to women's rights and slavery.

SASHA TURNER: Slavery in the British territories, specifically Jamaica, which is the focus of my address, ended through a series of legislations, beginning with the 1807 act to abolish the slave trade and the 1833 Emancipation Act that would end slavery after a four- to six-year period of apprenticeship. With the passing of the 1807 act to end the slave trade, slaveholders revisited their labor management strategies from one that simply emphasized the production of tropical commodities—sugar, molasses and rum—for the export market towards new tactics that placed emphasis on obtaining replacement laborers by biological reproduction. In reality, this meant that British-Caribbean slaveholders monitored and interfered with enslaved women’s sexual habits and childbearing practices in hopes of securing greater conception rates and increases in the number of babies born and raised into slavery. Slaveholders arbitrarily paired enslaved women with men, built hospitals and delivery rooms. They also increased pregnant women’s food allowances, mitigated punishment, and altered women’s working responsibilities into, quote, “protecting unborn children.”

AMY GOODMAN: That was Quinnipiac University history professor Sasha Turner speaking during an event that marked the U.N.’s—Monday’s International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. This year’s theme: “Forever Free: Celebrating Emancipation,” a reference to the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s announcement in the middle of the U.S. Civil War that declared free all persons held as slaves.

Well, it was two years ago this week that our next guest spoke before the United Nations, becoming the first journalist invited to speak inside the United Nations General Assembly hall for the International Remembrance of Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. This is an excerpt of her address.

CHERYL WILLS: Tonight, I stand before you as the proud great-great-great-granddaughter of an African who was enslaved in the United States of America, until he summoned the courage to fight for his freedom. My grandpa, Sandy Wills, his story was lost from our family for 150 years, until I logged onto the family research site ancestry.com and uncovered records which revealed a story of bravery and dignity.

Sandy was purchased on a slave auction block when he was a mere 10 years old, snatched from his mother, his father and all the people he held dear, and transported to the Wills plantation in Haywood County, Tennessee. During his stay, he bonded with five enslaved boys. And 13 years later, they all escaped together together to go fight for their freedom as members of the United States Colored Troops in the 4th Heavy Field Artillery based out of Columbus, Kentucky. They fought and saw freedom at last in 1865.

But the story did not end there. Although slavery had ended, its evil twin, Jim Crow, took its place. And my grandparents, also born in Haywood County, Tennessee, did not know, and Jim Crow taught them not to care, about their African legacy.

AMY GOODMAN: Cheryl Wills, speaking two years ago this week that the United Nations, joining us now to talk about the family history she uncovered in thousands of documents from the National Archives, especially the story of her great-great-great-grandparents, Sandy and Emma Wills. She details all of this in her book, Die Free: A Heroic Family Tale. Cheryl Wills is also well known in New York, an award-winning anchor and reporter for NY1, Time Warner Cable’s flagship television news network. She was one of the founding staff of NY1 and now a longtime anchor.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s a privilege to have you here.

CHERYL WILLS: Amy, thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Cheryl, tell us—continue to tell us this remarkable story and how you discovered it.

CHERYL WILLS: You know, Amy, my family, for more than 100 years, had no idea who Sandy Wills was. And as I said in my speech to the United Nations, I found him online, which was remarkable. And it changed my life, because this was a story that was empowering. It was nothing to be ashamed of. But during the Jim Crow era in the United States, many African Americans were taught to be ashamed of their legacy, to be ashamed of slavery, to be ashamed that they were forced here against their will. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s actually a badge of honor that they survived. So, when I found the records, I compiled it into a narrative, connecting it to my father, who passed away at a very young age, and I wrote the book. And it’s been doing very well.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, when you say you went online and you discovered the story of your great-great-great-grandfather, what did you do?

CHERYL WILLS: I put in my father’s last name. My father was a fireman who died in a horrific motorcycle accident. He was a fireman right here in New York City and a Vietnam-era paratrooper, and he died at 38. And when I was 13, I was like, “Who is this guy?” So, all I knew was that he was born in Haywood County, Tennessee. I put in his last name, “Wills,” and mine.

AMY GOODMAN: And you did this where online?

CHERYL WILLS: On ancestry.com. Can you believe? And I didn’t even know what I was looking for. I just wanted some connection. You know, I was—I’m still, no matter how old I get—I’m 46 years old—I’m still that little 13-year-old girl sitting at my father’s funeral, no matter what I do in life. And I wanted to know more. Who was he? Who were his grandparents? And—

AMY GOODMAN: Why your last name was Wills.

CHERYL WILLS: Why was my last name Wills was the biggest question. And no one could ever answer that for me. And when I went online, I found out, when I got records from the National Archives, that Edmund Wills purchased little Sandy when he was 10 years old. Little Sandy was my great-great-great-grandfather.

AMY GOODMAN: And then how did you trace it from there?

CHERYL WILLS: Well, Sandy, it turns out, with five boys, bonded with them on the Wills plantation. He was purchased about 1850. And as they all grew up, those five boys, they realized they were in an oppressive situation. See, slavery was very demonic in all of its ways. It tried to make the slaves think they were in a special place. “We’re taking care of you, and you should be so happy that you don’t have to worry about the troubles of the world.”

AMY GOODMAN: So he’s given the name of his slave master.

CHERYL WILLS: As was customary. And what I found very remarkable was that all of these boys knew that they were being hoodwinked. They knew that there was something terribly wrong with the way they were living. And when they grew up and heard about the Emancipation Proclamation being signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, and that proclamation also authorized the enlistment of black soldiers and the formation of the United States Colored Troops, they knew it was their chance to escape.


CHERYL WILLS: USCT. And when I saw that acronym next to Sandy’s name, that’s when I hired a professional genealogist. I said, “I’ve got to make sure this is right.” I’m a journalist, after all. I have to double- and triple-confirm this. And we did. And it turns out there was a definite link right from Sandy to his son Alex, to my great-grandpa Allen, to my grandfather Fred, to my father Clarence. So, it turns out those boys, together, enlisted. They left the—

AMY GOODMAN: They were all enslaved.

CHERYL WILLS: They were all the slaves of Edmund Wills.

AMY GOODMAN: All having the names of Wills.

CHERYL WILLS: All had his surname, as was the tradition. And together, they all left his plantation, crossed state lines into Columbus, Kentucky, enlisted as slaves in the 4th Heavy Field Artillery, and fought for their freedom from 1863. And they were all honorably discharged in 1866 after the Civil War. Only one of them died.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened to Sandy then?

CHERYL WILLS: Sandy was honorably discharged, and like many slaves, he returned to the place that he knew, Haywood County, Tennessee. My father was born there. And he married a remarkable woman named Emma. They had nine children. And they lived out the rest of their lives there.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Women’s History Month, Cheryl, and your great-great-great-grandmother Emma certainly made history. Talk about what she did.

CHERYL WILLS: You know, Amy, thank you for saying that. And she was a soldier in her own right, born a slave, sold twice in her life, first to the West family, then to the Moore family. And then the Civil War happened, and she found herself a free woman in 1865, and she was in her late teens. She marries this dashing Civil War veteran now, named Sandy, my grandfather three generations removed. They have nine children. Here’s what’s interesting, one, that the history books don’t tell you: She married in the home of the people who once owned her. I found that absolutely fascinating. I learned all of this from the pension records. She had a fancy wedding. And they paid for it, apparently. And someone gave—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, she really paid for it, right, with all those years of labor.

CHERYL WILLS: Thank you. Thank you for saying that. But here’s what’s most interesting: Someone gave her a Bible. She was illiterate, as were most slaves. They were not allowed to read or write. In fact, they would cut off their hands or really whip them severely, if they caught them even attempting to read a book. So she was illiterate. Someone gave her a Bible, presumably as a wedding gift. Every time she had a child, Amy, she had the people who once owned her write the name of her child in the Bible. Now, one might say, “What a sophisticated thing for a 19-year-old former slave girl, now wife and mother, to do.” She didn’t do it once; she did it with all nine of her children.

AMY GOODMAN: Because she wanted the date of their birth?

CHERYL WILLS: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: She didn’t know her own?

CHERYL WILLS: And she didn’t know her own. Isn’t that something? She did not know when she came into the world. Neither did Sandy. Neither did any of former slave know. But she demanded that now that she is historic, as you said, in that she is the first in hundreds of years of enslaved African women to be able to have a child and keep it. She knew: My children will not be sold. These children are special. These are the first children in our area that we can keep who will not be sold on an auction block. So she had someone record their names and their birth dates. And it was a first, as you said. Here’s what’s interesting. Sandy dies about 15 years later. She’s now a widow with nine children. She appeals to the federal government for her widow’s pension for herself and her nine children. She has nine dependents now.

AMY GOODMAN: Because he was a Civil War vet.

CHERYL WILLS: He was a Civil War veteran, and this was the beginning of the pension system for war veterans now. So, she applies, and they immediately reject her, just without missing a beat. And she submitted his discharge paper. That was the one thing he kept. When he was discharged, even though he was illiterate, the sergeants told them, “Do not ever lose this discharge paper.” And he kept it, through his marriage, living in a one-room shack, formerly a slave shack, now a sharecropper’s shack. So she had it. She submitted it to the federal government, the War Pension Department. They rejected her.

What did she do? She hired a lawyer—in the 1880s. That’s very impressive, at $10 per filing. Her lawyer’s name was C.M. Sweet. I have all the documents. They sent them to me. I paid for it by page, Amy. It was the best investment I ever made, because in these documents, I see how they gave her the runaround. I see how they did not respect her as a widow, as someone whose husband sacrificed his life to help end the scourge of slavery in the United States. They could care less. They asked her all kinds of demeaning questions. “Provide proof of your birth.” They knew she was unable to do so. “Provide proof of Sandy’s birth.” They knew she was unable to do so. And then they hit her with what I call the jackpot question: “Provide proof that Sandy’s children were in fact born and legally yours, and provide proof of their birth.” And she gave her lawyer that Bible. And she couldn’t even read for herself. But she said to her lawyer, “It’s in here. Get it. I had the people who once owned me write their names and birth dates in the Bible.” And she said they wrote—quote, “I know my Bible record is right.” And it was the most touching thing I had ever seen.

And what was even more heart-wrenching was, at the end of every document, you see everyone else’s beautiful cursive script, and they’re transcribing her deposition. And she’s going over and over, “I married Sandy,” and, you know, trying to prove her existence in the United States. And at the end of the document, Amy, you see she signs it with an “X,” which reminds me of the forced world of illiteracy. And when I give speeches all over the world, especially to students, I remind them, my great-great-great-grandmother had been reduced to signing her name with an “X.” And it—when I am in New York City and I see students dropping out of school, see, that means they’re not getting the message of the Civil War. That means we’re not teaching the Civil War properly, because if you knew—it wasn’t just my grandmother, it was all of African-American grandmothers and grandfathers who signed with an “X”—if you knew that that’s what they were reduced to, you would be the best student you could be.

AMY GOODMAN: And you have these documents—

CHERYL WILLS: I have every one of them.

AMY GOODMAN: —because her testimony was transcribed.

CHERYL WILLS: Literally, Exhibit A. I have every single one of them, all of the depositions that were transcribed. And that’s how I found the remarkable family story with such detail.

AMY GOODMAN: And she got her—

CHERYL WILLS: She won. They went back and forth, and the government humiliated her and asked her demeaning questions. But she did not give up. And I use this story every Women’s History Month as an inspiration. And I tell women, especially, if my Grandma Emma could do that as a former slave in a one-room shack with nine children as a widow, there’s nothing women can’t do. She was a womanist, and she didn’t even know what that was. She was a feminist, and she didn’t even know what that meant. But she asserted her right to be heard as a woman, as a wife and as a mother. And I find that very inspirational. I regret that as a child I did not know this story. I regret that I only found this out in my forties. But I’m also very grateful that I found it out at all, because my father died and didn’t know, his father died and didn’t know. You understand the gap in our history? So much has been lost that we have not been able to benefit from.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we clearly have to continue this conversation, which we will do after the show, and we’ll post it online at democracynow.org. You’ve been listening to the remarkable Cheryl Wills, author of Die Free: A Heroic Family Tale. She’s an anchor here in New York City on the Time Warner Cable flagship television news network NY1; in 2011, two years ago this week, made history as the first journalist invited to speak inside the U.N. General Assembly hall.

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