The Five Spot: Cheryl Wills

Bonus Five

What current TV shows are on your DVR?60 Minutes and The Crown (anxiously waiting for new season)

Destinations on your vacation bucket list? Accra, Ghana. Paris, France. Vatican City, Italy.

Favorite podcast? NPR’s "All Things Considered" podcast

Books on your nightstand?The Slaves War by Andrew Ward; We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates Riverside Grill, Nautical Mile, Freeport, Long Island. Lobster!

Tell us about a recent memorable meal. Riverside Grill, Nautical Mile, Freeport, Long Island. Lobster!

Cheryl Wills joined Spectrum News NY1, the local cable news channel, when it launched on Time Warner Cable (now Charter) in New York in 1992. She hosts the weekly public-affairs show In Focus With Cheryl Wills and is the primetime anchor on NY1 Live at Ten, which debuted this past January. She won a New York Emmy Award this year as part of the team that profiled the Broadway show Come From Away for NY1’s On Stage program.

Wills also is an accomplished author. Her children’s book about her enslaved ancestor who fought for his freedom in the Civil War, The Emancipation of Grandpa Sandy Wills, has been distributed to schools across the country, and she also wrote the young adult book Emancipated: My Family’s Fight for Freedom. Her next book, coming this fall, is about her great-great-great grandmother, Emma, called Emma: The Girl Who Dared the Dream! She shared some thoughts (edited for space) with B&C content director Kent Gibbons.

What was hardest about researching your family’s history for your books?
The hardest aspect with this kind of research is tracking down enslaved ancestors whose surnames changed with each sale. It’s why most African-Americans shy away from trying to research their family history. For example, my great-great-great grandmother Emma West Moore Wills (1851-1901) had three surnames. West was the name of the original slave holding family that her father, Dolphin West, was born into. Dolphin was then transferred to a West relative, John Bertie Moore, and Emma was also known as Emma Moore. When she married my Civil War veteran grandfather, Sandy Wills, she became Emma Wills. So when I tried to connect the dots, it took time for me to realize Emma West, Emma Moore and Emma Wills were the same person.

What was the biggest surprise?
The most surprising thing that I learned from my years of research is that my great-great-great grandmother, Emma, hired a lawyer to fight for her widow’s pension when the federal government initially turned her down. Mind you, she was an illiterate 40-year-old widow with nine children who lived in a dusty, sleepy country town in Haywood County, Tennessee, which few people had ever heard of. She displayed a tenacity and determination that I draw inspiration from on a daily basis. After haggling with the federal government and persuading her former owners to help her fill out paperwork — she won! I’m proud of her and honor her legacy in my current work.

What story or interview that you have done has made the biggest impact and why?
The most impactful interview was with the first woman president of Africa, Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia. It was a personal milestone for me to meet a powerful leader who is also a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Who is on your interview wish list?
Former President Barack Obama is at the very top of the list. I would like to talk to him about his eight years as president and I would love to know what he thinks about the current political climate. He’s still a young man, so I’d also ask about his plans for the future — aside from his presidential library.

Do you watch a lot of news programming or do you prefer to get away from it and watch entertainment?
In this turbulent political climate, I cannot tear myself away from news programming both on and off the air. This is an extraordinary time in American history. I am paying close attention because as journalists, we help to narrate and capture history. I watch very little entertainment because I’m always glued to the news. Yes, I’m a news junkie.