Actress Vanessa Williams ancestors lives make for an interesting episode of NBCs WDYTYA. She traces her roots back to two of her great-great-grandfathers, exploring their remarkable lives.
Williams starts her research by visiting her fathers grave in Oyster Bay, NY. She jots down information she finds on the headstones of her fathers family, including that of David Carll, her great-great-grandfather and a member of the 26th New York Colored Infantry in the Civil War.
According to the 1870 census, Carll was a free mulatto married to a white woman named Louisa. Williams is absolutely amazed that her ancestors were an interracial couple in the post-Civil War era.
Her research then jumps to National Archives in Washington, DC, where Williams gets her hands on Carlls Compiled Military Service Record. National Archives researcher Vonnie Zullo pulls out an original tintype from Carlls CMSR, saying it’s the only one she’s come across in her 20-plus years at the depository.
From Carlls pension record, Williams learns he was never a slave and that he worked as a crew member on steamships. Zullo then explains that he was taking a big risk enlisting in the Union Army, as the Confederacy would put a captured black Union soldiers in slavery.
Carll was deployed in Beaufort, S.C. Williams continues her search there, meeting with Hari Jones, curator of the African American Civil War Museum. They tour the site of the Battle of Bloody Bridge, where Williams is shocked to hear her great-great-grandfathers regiment enforced the Emancipation Proclamation, liberating slaves in the South.
Williams then heads to Baltimore to visit her Uncle Earl, looking for more clues about her fathers side of her family. He directs her to Tennessee to pursue John Hill Williams, her great-grandfather.
In the 1910 census, Williams finds her great-grandfathers wifes name, Mary Williams. She then reads Marys obituary, which reveals her fathers name — William A. Fields. The 1880 census indicates Fields was a mulatto schoolteacher.
Heading to Nashville Williams meets with Kathy Lauder, archivist at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. Lauder shows Williams a bust in state legislature building devoted to early African American legislators, and Williams is shocked to find Fields name engraved on it.
Fields served in the Tennessee legislature from 1885 to 1886, drafting an education bill that would require all children age 7 to 16 to attend school. That bill, and bills similar to it, died in committee. Lauder also shows her Fields photo in the legislature composite and where he sat in the chamber.
Williams wonders how Fields could have been elected so soon after the Civil war. Lauder explains that slaves made up about 40 percent of the population of Tennessee; once they were freed, some districts had more black residents than white, and they elected black politicians.
And here they come, right out of slavery, no one even believes they are human yet — there are people who dont think that theyre people. Lauder said to Williams. It was a spectacular thing to have black people in the legislature.
Fields was one of the last black lawmakers in Tennessee, as white men composed the legislature from 1888 to 1965. Tennessee changed its constitution to make it more difficult for blacks to vote with poll taxes, literacy tests and residency requirements.
Through court records, Williams later discovers that Fields was born a slave. Williams finds Fields story to be similar to her fathers she breaks down in tears before traveling home to relay her new-found roots to her family.
“WDYTYA” airs Fridays at 8pm EST on NBC. Check the Genealogy Insider blog for a brief recap of each episode, and post a comment to be entered to win in our Discover Who You Are Sweepstakes!