Throughout her career in the news, the story Cheryl Wills didn’t know she was born to tell was that of her grandparents who had a hand in ending slavery.
Emmy award-winner Cheryl Wills, anchor for New York 1 News, is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Sandy Wills, an enslaved Civil War soldier. She has spent the last 10 years researching her family history and “bringing honor” to her ancestors.
“This is my full-time job,” said Wills, who is determined to right this historic wrong. “This is why Juneteenth lives in me. They matter. Their stories are as important as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.”
She spoke at today’s Women in Law Section Program “Celebrating Juneteenth: A Conversation With Cheryl Wills” about her family’s struggles and ultimate stories of hope, as well as the history of Juneteenth. The Moderator, the Honorable Tanya Renee Kennedy, Supreme Court Justice, NY County described Wills as a “force” who is “passionate, authentic, and willing to help and serve others.”
Speaking Their Names
Wills learned her family’s history through the National Archives. She has written four books about her family. Her most recent book Emma discusses her grandmother’s successful fight to secure Sandy’s pension, through the help of a lawyer. Wills discovered her grandmother’s depositions that she signed with an X because she was illiterate.
“My grandmother was so much more than an X. When I sign my name, I think of Emma,” said Wills. “I don’t take that X for granted.”
Wills recently went to the Mooreland Plantation where Sandy and Emma met. She met the family of her ancestors’ owners. They were slightly nervous around each other, she says, but we “needed to talk.” Her ancestors are buried under leaves and trees without markers. She has vowed to give her ancestors a proper burial with military honors through the help of an archaeological crew and DNA samples.
Sandy and Emma are the “unsung heroes that built that this country,” she said. Recent events have led to us “speaking their names.”
“When we saw George Floyd’s death under the knee of a police officer, we were shocked beyond belief. It brought back memories of so many who had been killed by people who wore sworn to protect them and serve them. And it brought back terrible memories of Emmett Till and of so many others, but with all of those deaths, we have centuries of people who have been lynched and killed,” said Wills. “George Floyd’s death did all of this.”
Judge Kennedy said, “I can tell countless stories of having a knee on my neck professionally and personally. It really brought to life what we have gone through as blacks.” A dear friend recently asked her how she could best support her. “The way that you support me is to speak up and to take action because, when you do that, you support the black community and you’re supporting me,” answered Judge Kennedy.
Juneteenth (short for June Nineteenth) is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. It was on June 19th that the 2,000 Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas, with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. “This announcement really changed their lives,” said Wills, who said that Juneteenth is “everyday in my heart for me.” She explained that Confederate states did not enforce the Emancipation Proclamation.
Governor Cuomo issued an executive order on June 17 recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday for state employees in acknowledgment of the official emancipation of African Americans throughout the United States. The governor also advanced legislation to make Juneteenth an official state holiday next year.
“He answered the call,” said Wills, who noted that 47 states were acknowledging Juneteenth. “I think Governor Cuomo is responding to the will of the people.”
Wills said that Juneteenth “in my honest opinion, this is a holiday that should be recognized by all Americans no matter what race, creed or color. We are all in this together. When you oppress and hurt someone, you are only hurting yourself.”
She explained that you cannot tell the story of America without telling the story of all of her people. “This is an American holiday.”