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An interview with NY1’s Cheryl Wills, author of ‘Die Free’

February 23, 2023 Hon. Genine Edwards
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On behalf of the Kings County Courts Black History Month Committee, I had the pleasure of interviewing Emmy award-winning journalist for Spectrum News NY1, Cheryl Wills, who recently wrote, “Die Free,” a book that informs this year’s theme Black Resistance, Black Resilience, Undeterred Excellence. Cheryl Wills masterfully weaves a story from slavery to Jim Crow to the present.

When she was just 13-years-old, Wills listened to an elder’s wife read an abbreviated obituary and was disgusted. She knew then that her father had lived an extraordinary life, but she did not learn that her family was from Haywood County, Tennessee until that moment because her family never talked about the South or the oppression they endured living there.

After becoming a journalist and telling so many other people’s stories, Wills was moved to tell her own father’s story, oppression and all. It was her attempt to restore the respect that her father had before he died, she thought. While working on her father’s story, she discovered that her great- great-great grandfather, Sandy Wills, was a runaway slave who had fought in the Civil War.

She recalled that in 1863, with the air of emancipation thick in the air, Sandy Wills stole away from slavery by taking a long, dangerous trek, most likely barefooted, from the Wills Plantation, in Haywood County, Tennessee to Union City, Tennessee, an approximate 70-mile walk.

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Sandy Wills enlisted to fight in the Civil War, with the 4th Field Heavy Artillery, Company G. His determination is the common thread that is woven through generations of Wills’ family.

That determination ran through her grandfather Fred Wills, who literally played his guitar and sang as bus fare from Lafayette, Indiana to New York City, where he eventually became a Pastor of his own church.

That determination was found in her father Clarence Wills, who served as a paratrooper for the United States Army, a New York City firefighter, and a college graduate. He did not have the privilege of knowing that he was a descendant of a Civil War soldier and greatness was baked into his DNA.

Using her skills as an investigative journalist, Cheryl Wills obtained Sandy Wills’ enlistment records and that began her journey. Sandy Wills was purchased at the age of ten and escaped slavery at the age of 23, along with a few other young male slaves.

Although illiterate, he identified his occupation as a farmer, as opposed to a slave, which indicates his rejection of that label and highlighted how he saw himself. A bit of Black Resistance, in this writer’s opinion.
After his death, his widow, Emma Wills, was denied his pension from the army, however she had the fortitude to hire a lawyer to get the respect she was due as a widow of a Civil War soldier. Upon winning her lawsuit, Emma Wills dipped her quill into the inkwell and signed her X, beside her name.

Her father’s journey was filled with many valleys and pitfalls, and his life ended tragically. As a young teenager, Cheryl was crushed and angered by his death, her mom was scorned, and her grand-mother disappointed and ashamed. But Ms. Wills chose to extend grace to her father.

She weaves a heroic family story that is raw, bittersweet, and brilliant. Like her great-great-great grandmother Emma, affectionately named “Mother Mary,” who ensured that her nine children’s names were written down in her Bible by her former slave owner, because she could not read or write, Cheryl Wills reclaimed and restored her father’s reputation with this narrative.

Since writing “Die Free,” more than a decade ago, Cheryl Wills has written a series of books further chronicling her family’s trajectory. She was also able to find the plantation where Sandy and Emma lived and died. In fact, the same family still owns the land.

With the same determination that is so prominent in her family, Wills located the hill on the Moore property where many slave remains were buried. Her intention is to have the land excavated so she can give her great- great-great grandfather, Sandy Wills, a proper burial as a Civil War soldier at the Memphis National Cemetery. She plans to do more with the land to honor the lives of those dignified and proud Africans who lived, worked, and died there in obscurity.

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