Wednesday, February 20, 2013 (Bronx, NY) – Cheryl Wills knows that family history can play an important role in shaping a person’s future. In the presentation she gave on February 7 as part of the Hostos Heritage Lecture Series, the NY1 News anchor spoke about the lessons she learned while doing research for her new book, Die Free: A Heroic Family Tale.
The fascinating story of her past began to emerge when the award-wining journalist decided to trace her roots after the untimely death of her father. She told the audience at Hostos that although the personal journey began during a sad point in her life, it eventually led to an uplifting discovery that her great-great-great-grandfather Sandy Wills escaped from slavery and fought with the United States Colored Troops in the Civil War from 1863–1865.
On March 25, 2011, Wills herself made history as the first journalist invited to speak in the United Nations General Assembly Hall for The International Remembrance of Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. On that occasion, her reading of passages from Die Free were broadcast live around the world on UNTV.
At Hostos, Wills also spoke about growing up with her Vietnam-era paratrooper father, who died without ever knowing his family’s history. She learned that her family took the surname of their slave master Edmund Wills (a common practice), and that the Wills broke the chains of slavery with incredible courage and conviction. After her husband's death, Wills’ great-great-great-grandmother petitioned the federal government for the pension benefits that were automatically issued to widows of white soldiers who fought in the Civil War. Even though she faced an uphill battle, she eventually obtained her pension with the help of a lawyer.
Wills said that while researching the story that had begun in Haywood County, Tennessee, in the 1860s, she pored over more than 2,000 documents. She also told her audience at Hostos that discovering one’s roots can be enlightening and liberating. For her, it was “a spiritual experience.”
“I finally got the story of a family that had been lost for century. I wish I’d known all about it as a young girl. It might have helped me. They taught me that there is nothing I cannot do.”
Student Government Association President Sandra May Flowers announced that the organization would purchase copies of Die Free for students.
Wills’ presentation was the third event in the Hostos Heritage Lecture Series, which also brought Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz to the college. This was one of several activities held at the college to celebrate Black History Month and the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Die Free can be purchased at AmazonBuy, Barnes & Noble, Hue-Man Bookstore, and IndieBound.
About Hostos Community College
Eugenio María de Hostos Community College, part of The City University of New York (CUNY) system, was founded in 1968. In addition to associate degree programs that facilitate easy transfer to CUNY’s four-year colleges or baccalaureate studies at other institutions, Hostos also has an award-winning Division of Continuing Education and Workforce Development that offers courses for professional development and certificate-bearing workforce training programs. In four decades, Hostos has grown from a class of 623 in 1970 to more than 7,000 students in 2012. The college also serves an additional 12,000 students through its Division of Continuing Education and Workforce Development. For more news and stories about Hostos Community College, visit www.hostos.cuny.edu
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