Learning the Past: Newhouse alumna tells the stories of her ancestors

Cheryl Wills ’89 is used to telling other people’s stories as a reporter and anchor at Spectrum News NY1. Now, she’s telling her family’s story.

Cheryl Wills

Wills is the author of two illustrated children’s books—“The Emancipation of Grandpa Sandy Wills,” published in 2015, and “Emma,” which was released earlier this year. The books chronicle the lives of her great-great-great-grandparents, who were born into slavery in Tennessee. Sandy Wills served during the Civil War and fought for his freedom. His wife, Emma, was emancipated as a teenager and, although she was illiterate, emphasized education and literacy for her nine children and fought a government unwilling to give her a military widow’s pension.

In the course of researching the books, Wills discovered the origin of her surname—it belonged to the slaveowner who purchased Sandy Wills in 1850—and visited the Tennessee plantation where Sandy and Emma met and married, and where she believes they are buried. Wills plans to have them removed and reburied with military funeral honors in Memphis National Cemetery.

Student Jewél Jackson spoke with Wills about the importance of family stories and the role African Americans have played in United States history.

What made you decide to research and write about your great-great-great-grandparents, Sandy and Emma Wills—and to tell their stories in the form of children’s books?

I want children to know what I didn’t get to know. [My great-great-great-grandparents] were Africans in America, who transitioned from slavery to freedom during the Civil War. I find it heartbreaking that [as child]… I was not able to tap into that incredible piece of my family history. I think it’s imperative that children start to understand why they are here, and why they matter, and why they’ve been passed the baton, if you will. You’re not just memorizing history, you are that history. I am American history, and my family played a critical role in this country’s development during its most critical time.

When my great-great-great-grandfather returned to Tennessee [after the Civil War], he met this beautiful former slave named Emma. She went through transition from slavery to freedom when she was about 13 or 14 years old. And what I admire about Emma so much is that she realized, I have to make sure my family gets an education.

Cheryl Will in front of the last slave shack on the Tennessee plantation where her ancestors lived.
Wills in front of the last slave shack on the Tennessee plantation where her ancestors lived.

What were some of the hurdles you encountered while researching and writing your books?

Whenever an African American is trying to trace their family tree, one of the biggest hurdles is that you have one slave owner, and he could have 200 or 300 slaves, [all with his last name]. I found all these Wills… how do I know which one is actually related to me?

What would you say to other African Americans who may want to delve into their own ancestry but are hesitant to do so or don’t know how?

A good starting point is the census. The 1860 census is very tragic for Black folks because we were not categorized as people, we were categorized as property, and they didn’t even list our names. But then in 1870, you start to see the names and… you start to really see people. And check military records. Most Black men joined the military… so when you start looking at military records, you’re going to find your family.

Why was it important for you as an African American woman to learn about your ancestry?

It’s so important for me as an African American woman to be armed with this information. Once I found out about my great-great-great-grandparents, I just moved full speed ahead. It has really empowered me in the best way because now I realize, whatever you feel your path is, walk it boldly.

Cheryl Wills on the land where her great-great-great grandfather is buried in an unmarked grave.
Wills on the land where her great-great-great grandfather is buried in an unmarked grave.

You have said that Black history is not taught well. Your books include resources for teachers—do you hope to contribute to an improvement in the way Black history is taught? What other steps do you think are important to achieving this goal?

The Black experience, including enslavement, is taught as if Black people were in agreement with it and went along with it. But they were fully aware of the injustices that they were living under. Many of them (famously Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass) ran away, and those who did not or could not run away, they had little acts of rebellion. None of these stories are recorded in textbooks. That’s what I mean when I say I’m trying to help teachers fill in the gaps. African Americans are taught as a footnote in American history, when actually, we’re a thread that’s interwoven in this whole country’s history.

Jewél Jackson is a junior newspaper and online journalism major at the Newhouse School.