NY1 anchor learns ancestor was a slave

By Sadef Kully

The Jamaica Performing Arts Center celebrated the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Monday with community leaders and officials, poets, dancers, musicians and keynote speaker Cheryl Wills, a television anchorwoman for NY1 local news channel.

The event was put together through Councilman Daneek Miller’s office (D-St. Albans) and sponsored by EmblemHealth. The event began with the “Star-Spangled Banner” and “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” sung by Shemeka Fennell.

“We celebrate this life and legacy of the Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for his words and his deeds. We rejoice in his journey – we pray for peace and justice in Queens, in the country and all over the world,” said Dr. Rev. Oliver-Durrah, who has been a community leader in New York City for over 30 years, was the the mistress of ceremonies.

A special dance performance was given by students of the Edge School of the Arts and the Ultimate Dance Academy in Laurelton. The Emmy-winning violinist Damien Escobar, who is from Queens, played his own composed music for the audience followed by a poetry reading with poet Renee McRae. Each performance delivered an uplifting message and reiterated the struggle of the civil rights movement in the United States.

“And now I say today 150 years later Dr King’s’ words still ring true. In our communities today, we see cases where African Americans are still seared in the flames of withering injustice, 150 years later so many of us still find ourselves in exile in our own land, 150 years later, the school to prison pipeline is putting so many brilliant young men behind bars, and 150 years so many of us do not know our own family links to slavery,” Wills told the standing room audience.

The TV broadcaster said “as this nation, marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery, I have come here today to dramatize what still is a shameful condition. The first question may be, why do we need to know about slavery today? Simple question and I have a simple answer: Those who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it.”

She recently wrote the book, “Die Free: A Heroic Family Tale,” about uncovering the slave history of her family and shared her journey of discovery with the audience. After the death of her father, Wills started searching through her family history to find that she was the great-great-great-great granddaughter of slaves. A slave, her grandfather Sandy Wills, became free and joined the Northern troops Civil War to fight for freedom in the Civil War. Her grandmother had to battle the system to receive his pension after his death, for herself and her nine children.

“I have a vision that 150 years later, we will learn that our ancestors that endured generation after generation of human captivity that their descendants have now learned to tap into their strength and rise up and say enough is enough, with the Michael Browns, enough is enough, for Eric Gardner, enough is enough,” said Wills, drawing from King’s “I have a Dream” speech.

Wills ended her talk with passion.

“And I have a vision that we will sign our names not with an X like my grandmother Emma did on those depositions, but we will sign our names with a bold stroke reminding all of those who come into contact with us that we are proud children of warriors who never surrendered their dignity or their decency and overcame insurmountable odds and in their memory, and in Dr. King’s memory, we have already overcome,”