Journalist Cheryl Wills writes books about slaves and soldiers who were her descendents

The cover of Cheryl Wills’ book “Emancipated,” which is about her ancestor who served in the Civil War.

Author and journalist Cheryl Wills came to Pelham Middle School a few weeks after the the seventh graders read her book, “Emancipated.” She has written other wonderful books that required her to do a great deal of research into her family’s history.

Wills is a news reporter for Spectrum News NY 1. She said she became a reporter because she was curious as a child. One of her hobbies was to interview adults in her family. She was particularly interested in her grandparents. She found out many fascinating things, such as how her maternal grandfather fought in World War I. He told her about serving in another country and being in a segregated unit. Her maternal grandmother described living in segregated South Carolina. Wills loved interviewing them, so being a reporter was a perfect fit. She said she loves reporting on events and knowing that she is recording history.

Wills’ father died when she was 13, and she was very interested in where he was born—Haywood County, Tennessee. She said she decided to do some research because she knew that she was the descendant of slaves, but their names had been erased, their stories lost to time. It was as if it was something she was supposed to be ashamed of, and she said she didn’t feel like that. Eventually, census records were uploaded and genealogy websites were created, and she jumped at the opportunity to find out more about her family’s history.

She ran into many other challenges. For one, slaves took their master’s last name. There were hundreds of people with the same name. Wills was able to find many legal documents that her great-great-great grandmother, Emma Wills, filed as she tried to get a widow’s pension after her Civil War veteran husband, Sandy Wills, died. These documents aided the research. When the 1870 census was released, it aided Wills in finding the missing branches of her family tree. Other helpful resources were military records and the National Archives. After finding all this information, she hired Craig Rice, a certified genealogist, to confirm she was in fact Sandy Wills’s great-great- great-granddaughter.

Wills has written many books about her family’s history. Her favorite is “Emma,” a picture book which focuses on Emma Wills. It came out Feb. 1. Her first book, “Die Free,” was the hardest to write, Wills said. She had never written a book before, and she had trouble organizing the information. She said the hardest thing about writing the books is to not make readers hate white people.

“Greed is greed—no matter the color,” Wills said.

It is the flaws of humanity that are responsible for evil, she said. Wills told students she wants readers to find out about their family history. “We owe where we are to our ancestors,” she said. “Readers will be driven to succeed if they know all that it took to get where we are.”

Wills visits schools so that students can hear from a direct descendant of a Civil War soldier who did research to find out about her family history. She wants students to learn the importance of knowing their history.

If she had to tell her sixth grade self one thing, she would say, “Cheryl, there is nothing more important in your life right now than being the best student you can be.  Everything else is a distraction. Don’t worry that your parents’ marriage is falling apart—that has nothing to do with you… Stay focused, and you have no idea how bright your future is. Just hang in there and work extra hard to get straight A’s.”

In the near future, Wills plans to revisit the plantation where Sandy and Emma Wills are buried. They are in a mass grave without any type of markers. She said she hopes to bury them in a military cemetery. She would like to make a film to encourage others with ancestors buried in mass graves after slavery to find them—to right a past wrong.