Cheryl Wills: anchored in pride and commitment

Nayaba Arinde | 4/12/2011, 5:29 p.m.
Cheryl Wills

Don't let the smooth and mellow news anchor delivery fool you. Get NY1 news veteran Cheryl Wills talking about the suffering and sacrifice of her enslaved African ancestors, and there's a passion unleashed like you wouldn't believe.

If you know NY1, you'll instantly recognize Cheryl Wills. She has been at the Time Warner Cable flagship news station since it launched in 1992. From political heads to medical innovators to fashion mavens, Wills has put her stamp on it.

Chatting with Wills reveals three immediate goals: to continue to deliver the news in an impactful manner, to show young people through example and constant mentoring that their ambition and dedication should be the only limits to their goals and to let the world know about the courage and heroism of her great-great-great grandfather, Sandy Wills, a Civil War soldier.

All will be revealed in her upcoming book. Wills is paying homage in her about-to-be-completed biography to her great-great-great grandfather, a runaway slave who joined the United States Colored Troops in Tennessee during the Civil War.

She is dedicating the book to her late father, Clarence, a vet and city firefighter. In researching the life of Sandy Wills, she went through reams and reams of age-old documents and found "Wills after Wills after Wills...tracing all the way up to my dad."

Born and raised in Queens, Wills wanted to find out about her complete heritage. Tennessee and New York she knows about. But what else is there?

"I have people like Sidique Wai, national president of the United African Congress, tell me that I am from Senegal, and I believe it."

She intends to make that beautiful journey "home." She was waiting, she explained, until her son Johnny was old enough to appreciate the journey.

"Now he's 12, and I know he can remember it. We're going to plan it."

Excitedly, Wills leaves the NY1 office, returning momentarily with a whole armful of files, records and CDS from the National Archives. Accumulating all that vital intelligence cost over a $1,000, but was worth every penny, she assured, as it has altered her life and will impact that of her own family and any and everyone inspired to research their own family roots.

Sold at 10 years old, Sandy Wills escaped the Wills plantation with four of his "brothers."

One of the evil techniques of enslavers was always to "break the family unit." This meant that enslaved Africans embraced "siblings" where ever they were able, adapted and kept it moving. Wills clasped the records of all five brothers burned onto CDs, detailing the history of them: being sold to Edmund Wills and the triumph of their escape in the middle of the night in 1863, after which they went into the United States Colored Troops; their official discharge pages; and the depositions enabling pensions to be granted in the light of government resistance.

Then there is great-great-great-grandma Emma. "I get chocked up when I think about her," said Will, the wife to John and mom to 12-year-old Johnny Singleton III. "She was a strong, independent woman. She had nine children. She could not read, but she made sure that all her children could read and write."