Spectrum News NY1 anchor Cheryl Will’s pursuit of history has a personal edge that few Black Americans possess, and she has dutifully imparted some of it in two of her books, “Die Free” and “The Emancipation of Grandpa Sandy Wills.”
“One day in 2009,” Wills wrote, recalling the research, “I was looking into my family history on Ancestry.com and discovered Sandy Wills. He is my great-great-great grandfather, and at the height of the Civil War, he escaped from his slave master, Edmund Wills, and joined the United States Colored Troops and fought valiantly until the war’s end in 1865.”
In her book “The Emancipation of Grandpa Sandy Wills,” primarily a children’s book based on a dream she had involving her ancestor, there is an elaborate diagram of her family tree that begins with Sandy Wills and Emma West Moore Wills. From her dream sequence, which is factual, Cheryl wrote, “Grandpa Sandy explained that he was a 10-year-old slave boy when two scary-looking men put a sack over his head as he was feeding the chickens.
“They carried him away screaming and kicking,” she continued, “and they took his mother, too. Her piercing cry echoed across the countryside. The two rode on the back of a horse-drawn wagon, up and down the hills of Tipton, Tennessee.”
The next thing Sandy knew, he was on an auction block and sold to a man named Edmund Wills for $500. When his new owner didn’t want his mother, Sandy was devastated but he promised “to find his way back to her” one day.
Sandy was taken to the Wills’ family plantation in Haywood County, Tenn., where his task was picking cotton. He was 23 when he heard his master telling his business partner that President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. With this new information, Sandy and some of the other slaves left the plantation and crossed the border into Columbus, Ky. There they joined the 4th Heavy Field Artillery Unit. Despite the moments of insult and humiliation from their commanding officers, Sandy and the other Black troops were determined “to hold our heads up high and be the best soldiers we could be,” Cheryl wrote.
When the war was over, with more than 600,000 soldiers killed, Sandy embarked for his hometown of Tipton County, intent on keeping his promise to see his mother.
“When Mama saw me, she nearly feinted,” Sandy said. They had not seen each other in 15 years.
After the war, Sandy worked as a sharecropper. Later, he met Emma West Moore, they fell in love and married. Their first child, William, was born Feb. 3, 1870, the same day Congress ratified the 15th Amendment, which granted African-Americans the right to vote, though it would take a century for the act to become effective.
Cheryl said she woke from her dream in a cold sweat. Her computer was glowing in the dark, and emblazoned on the screen was an 1889 newspaper obituary. “Sandy Wills, dead at 50. Former slave from Tipton County, Tennessee, brave soldier of the Civil War, loving husband to Emma Wills, and father of nine.”
Sandy Wills hadn’t just freed himself and his family tree, but his service in the Union Army helped liberate millions of African-Americans who were enslaved in this country. She knew what she had to do.
“I turned on the light and began typing the first chapter of ‘Die Free: A Heroic Family Tale,’ a book about my family history,” she wrote. “My Mom, brothers and sisters were thrilled to finally know more about my father’s relatives [her father Clarence was killed in a motorcycle accident when he 38 when Cheryl was 13] even though our last name came from a slave master.”
She began travelling all over the world telling Sandy’s story, even addressing august bodies of dignitaries at the United Nations. “Now Sandy Wills can rest in peace, knowing that his story is an inspiration around the world,” she wrote.
Sandy’s bravery was typical of many of former slaves who volunteered to fight against the Confederacy. Noted historian James M McPherson, in his book “The Negro’s Civil War,” recounts a young Black man and former slave from Tennessee who, like Sandy, performed heroically in a major battle. “I was in the Battle of Nashville when we whipped old Hood [General John Bell Hood]. I went to see my mistress on my furlough, and she was glad to see me. She said, ‘You remember when you were sick and I had to bring you in the house and nurse you?’ and I told her, ‘Yes’m, I remember.’ And she said, ‘And now you are fighting me!’ I said, ‘No’m, I ain’t fighting you, I’m fighting to get free.’”
This young man returned from battle to see his former mistress. Sandy wanted to see his mother, but the two soldiers had a similarly mission—to be free.
Tracking Sandy’s liberation also delivered a measure of freedom to Cheryl. One of the revelations she uncovered during her research occurred at the National Archives. “I couldn’t peel my eyes away from the reprinted original,” she said upon viewing an important document about Sandy’s condition. “‘Occupation: slave.’ Really?” she asked herself. “Was slavery really a means of earning a living? Honestly?! Slavery is not an activity in which a person is engaged; that would be an occupation.
“Slavery is not a profession,” she added. “To add insult to injury, in the ‘remarks’ section of the form, [the officer] added, ‘owned by Edmund Wills, Haywood Co. Tenn.’ As if to say, if the war is lost and the Confederacy wins, these slaves should be legally returned to Edmund Wills.”
But the Confederacy did not win, and Sandy went home in victory and to find his mother, marry and raise a family that Cheryl has gloriously enshrined.
The photo accompanying the article is from an illustration by Randell Pearson as depicted in “The Emancipation of Grandpa Sandy Wills” (Lightswitch Learning, 2015).