Vanessa Williams Who Do You Think You Are? USA


Vanessa Williams

Celebrity genealogy series. Actress Vanessa Williams goes on the trail of two of her ancestors who fought courageously to extend the rights and freedoms of black people in the USA.


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The new Miss America... Vanessa Williams, Miss New York!

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Vanessa Williams started breaking barriers at a very young age.

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When she was just 20 years old,

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she became the first African-American woman

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to earn the title of Miss America.

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Since then, the Grammy, Emmy, and Tony-Award nominated performer

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has become one of the most respected artists in the business,

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recently starring in the hit TV series Ugly Betty

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and also in Desperate Housewives.

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Vanessa and her four children split their time between Los Angeles

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and their home in Chappaqua, New York,

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where Vanessa was raised.

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My parents were both elementary music teachers.

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They were together as a couple until my dad passed recently.

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About four years ago.

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My dad and I were incredibly close.

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He was unconditionally loving and supportive

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and I always strived to make him proud.

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I had no idea that winning a Miss America title in 1983

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would actually be so significant to people

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that had lived through the Civil Rights Movement.

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And that to me was such an honour.

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But also something that I had no idea...the weight,

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and that there might be some bad consequences.

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To have white people who wanted to kill me because I was black

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and to have death threats against my family

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because, er, they felt that I was tarnishing

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the Miss America crown because I was a black person.

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So it was... it was an incredible time.

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I would love to find out

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whether someone else within my ancestral past

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did the same thing.

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And made a change. Or was noticed.

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Or did something that changed other people's lives.

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To being her journey, Vanessa is visiting Pine Hollow Cemetery

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in Long Island, where her father is buried.

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My dad would tell stories about growing up in Oyster Bay.

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They didn't have much.

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Pretty rural upbringing.

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But always full of love and joy.

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Um, and he always kind of reminisced with a smile.

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Cemetery is right back here.

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This is the family hill.

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It's a wonderful place to go and to connect with my dad.

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And when I call upon him, I can feel his presence.

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It's nice to start the journey here with my dad.

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Searching for his roots on his behalf.

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He would be so happy to be on this journey with me.

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And I know he is.

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I'm coming out here to visit. But this time I'm looking for clues.

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I'm hoping to find some information on my ancestors' headstones

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that I might not have noticed before.

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Vanessa knows little about her paternal grandfather,

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Milton Williams's side of the family.

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But she does know that her father's mother's name

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was Iris Carll.

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Her father was Frank Carll.

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And his father was Vanessa's great, great grandfather, David Carll.

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David Carll, it looks like Company 1.

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26 US... I would assume this is "coloured".

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And that would mean infantry.

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I think.

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1861 to 1865.

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I guess that would be...

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the Civil War.

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Which would be amazing.

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So that's a pretty big clue.

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My question would be, what happened to him?

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Did he make it...?

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If he was a veteran in the Civil War, did he make it back alive?

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And what was the catalyst to make him want to serve?

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Vanessa's family has lived in the Oyster Bay area for more than 100 years,

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so she's arranged to meet the town historian

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to find out if there are any records

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dealing with David Carll's enlistment in the Civil War.

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Mmm. John, my heart is racing right now.

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The record you're most interested in

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would be this record of soldiers from 1861 to 1865.

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And if we go to page 33...

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-Page 33.

-At the very top...

-Mm-hm.

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..you'll see a name that you're familiar with.

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David Carll.

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Enlisted January 2nd, 1864.

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In New York, blacks were first allowed to enlist

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December 23rd, 1863.

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Within the first week of their eligibility, he enlisted.

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Wow. He was a brave man to sign up.

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Especially in a time where there was a lot of uncertainty.

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It was quite a risk. There was quite a opposition

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and a big question as to would the black soldiers

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be accepted with the white soldiers?

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Mm-hm.

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African-Americans had been barred from military enlistment since 1792.

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But by 1862 the Union Army,

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which was fighting to end slavery in the South, was desperate.

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And it was forced to allow African-Americans

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the freedom to fight.

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However, it wasn't until December of 1863

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that the first coloured regiment was raised in the state of New York.

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So he was married.

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Bounty? 300?

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Yes. Early in the war, they paid a bounty of 75 for enlisting.

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-Really?

-By this time, the bounty had risen to 300.

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That's a lot of money back in the day.

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Yeah. So we have another record.

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This is a record of the purchase of land

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by David Carll

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on January 7th, 1864.

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So...

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..five days later, after he enlisted,

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he purchased this land.

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The bounty was 300 and the land cost 200.

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Yeah. So he bought it to secure property

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for his wife and his family.

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-This is where it all started.

-Ah. Wow.

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Discharged, August 28th, 1865.

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PO Address Oyster Bay, Queens County, New York.

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-So he survived the war.

-He survived. Yes.

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The question is, when he did serve,

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where did it take him?

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There's no indication of what happened to him

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or where he went in the war.

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For that, you'll have to go to the National Archives.

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National means Washington, DC?

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Yes. It looks like you're going to Washington.

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I'm going to Washington, DC. OK. Yay.

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I'm learning that my great, great grandfather

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was an incredibly selfless man.

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He put his life at risk enlisting in the Civil War

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in order to earn money and buy land for his family.

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Vanessa is heading to Washington, DC,

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to try to find out about David Carll's service during the war.

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She's visiting the National Archives,

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which holds one of the nation's largest collections of Civil War records.

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Think we're going to start with the pension file first.

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This entire file is on your soldier,

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is on David Carll.

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-Really?

-These are the original documents.

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-Wow.

-This is a good one to start with.

-Mm-hm.

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-You can touch it.

-Oh, can I? OK.

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-Yeah, you can.

-"Department of Interior. David Carll. Oyster Bay."

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"When were you born?" "Oyster Bay. 1845."

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"Colour of your skin." "Coloured." OK.

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"Were you a slave?"

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And he wrote, "Never."

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-Never!

-He was never. He was born a free man.

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Wow.

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"Never," period.

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-That's awesome.

-It is.

-Ah!

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Prior to the Civil War,

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the fate of African-Americans' freedom

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was in the hands of state lawmakers.

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Fortunately for David Carll and men like him,

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slavery was completely abolished in New York by 1827,

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which allowed him to be born free.

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And he enlisted in the Union Army

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to go to war to save men who were not free.

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-Absolutely.

-Yeah. It's pretty incredible.

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-Wow.

-And when I was going through this,

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I, um, came across something that was really pretty special.

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-Actually, we might need to...

-Uh-oh.

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-..put on gloves.

-Put on the gloves.

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-OK.

-OK.

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Wow.

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SHE GASPS Is this a picture? Oh, my gosh.

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-Wow.

-Can you see it?

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-It's called a tintype.

-That's an image.

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That's him.

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He sent it in to say, "I'm David Carll."

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He's in his Union uniform.

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I thought he looked like my brother immediately.

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When I saw this, I thought, "Oh, my gosh,

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"we have to bring this to light."

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-Go ahead.

-Oh, my goodness. My heart is about to jump.

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-Look at that.

-You can pick it up.

-David Carll.

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Look at that. And there's the flag.

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A handsome guy.

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And he looks like a proud man.

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Mm-hm. He was risking a lot.

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The Confederate Congress said,

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"If we capture a black Union soldier,

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"we will not put him in a POW camp."

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They'll kill him?

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-Or they'll put him in slavery.

-Ah.

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-Wow.

-Yeah.

-What a risk.

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It was quite a risk.

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I knew David Carll risked his life as a soldier

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in the Civil War.

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But it's even more frightening to think

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that as a black Union soldier fighting in the South,

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he could've been enslaved.

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He was a freedom fighter.

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Enlisted by his own free will.

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Left his home and his family.

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And after all of this -

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after all the hardships,

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he returned home to have kids,

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which had kids, which had my dad, which had me.

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It's... It's wonderful.

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Now Vanessa is ready to explore the paternal line of her father's family.

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She's heading to Baltimore to visit her Uncle Earl,

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her late dad's brother.

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I'm hoping that uncle Earl has some clues for me

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about the lineage on my dad's father's side of the family.

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I got a great picture of the Carll family,

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but I know virtually nothing about the Williams side of my ancestry.

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-Hello.

-Hi, Nessa.

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-How you doing?

-Good to see you.

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-Same here.

-How's it going?

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-Good.

-Good.

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Wow. I have been on such a journey.

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-Yeah, I'll bet.

-And I've got lots of questions for you.

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Look at these family photos.

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OK. Now, um, this was your dad

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when he graduated from high school.

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Ahh.

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And your grandfather, Milton.

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-Milton Senior.

-Yeah.

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Matter of fact, here is his picture.

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He was 19 at that time.

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1930. So he was born around 1911 or so?

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Yeah. He was born in Memphis.

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Ah. OK.

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His dad was a barber

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and his name was John Hill Williams.

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And do you know what his wife's name was?

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No. That's... that's the mystery, too.

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That's a mystery.

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Dad's mom died when he was so young

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that, er, he didn't know.

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-He wasn't one year old yet when she died.

-Right.

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-Then John Hill Williams died.

-OK.

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Dad was 11.

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So Milton Senior, your father and my dad's father,

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since he lost his mom at a young age

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and then lost his father, John Hill Williams...

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-At 11.

-..at 11...

-Yeah.

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..we don't really know much about his side of the family.

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No. It grieved him to talk about those things, I think.

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-That's painful.

-Yeah.

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'Oh, my uncle Earl.

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'He's the closest thing I have to my dad.

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'I'm so grateful he could fill in some of the gaps.'

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-Love you.

-Yeah. I love you, too.

-OK.

-OK.

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Off to my journey.

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My next mission, to find out more about John Hill Williams,

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who was a barber in Memphis, Tennessee.

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And who was his wife?

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To continue her research into her dad's side of her family,

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Vanessa is meeting a genealogist in Baltimore

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to see what clues she can find in the census records.

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I know that Milton Senior, my grandfather,

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was born around 1912.

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So I'm looking for, erm, more information on his dad

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and his mother.

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His mother died very early in his life so we have nothing.

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OK. So here's the 1910 census. This is a little hard to read.

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And actually, their family's right at the very top there.

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John Williams.

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And Mary. Wife. Mary Williams.

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-Mary.

-Mary.

-Mm-hm.

-Mm-hm.

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-So that's Milton's mom.

-Wow. Mary Williams.

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I went further and I searched for her obituary record.

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-And this is amazing.

-This is the obituary?

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-Yeah. This is her obituary.

-Oh, my gosh.

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So this tells you a whole lot about the family.

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-This is kind of eerie.

-Uh-huh.

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"Friday evening, February 20th, 1914."

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So my grandfather was two.

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OK. "At 7:25, Mary Williams, aged 38 years,

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"mother of Clarence, Arthur, and Milton,

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"and daughter of Elizabeth and the late William Fields."

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So Mary Fields.

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And her father...

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is...William Fields.

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-Mm-hm.

-Hmm.

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Well, that's a great clue.

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Vanessa has discovered that her great grandfather's wife

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was Mary Fields and HER father, Vanessa's great, great grandfather,

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was William Fields.

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And here is the 1880 census.

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-All right, so they're still in the same area.

-OK.

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-That's William. "WM."

-WM.

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There's... So if we look right across here...

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"Schoolteacher." Ah.

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So he was a teacher.

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Interesting.

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So do you have teachers in your family?

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-Both my parents are teachers.

-Oh, wow.

-Yeah, yeah.

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So if he was a schoolteacher

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-and he was mulatto...?

-Right.

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-So he's a man of colour.

-In Tennessee.

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In Tennessee.

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He must've been an educated man to teach school.

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And so soon after the Civil War.

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-Yeah.

-That's also fascinating.

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And they're all born in Tennessee, OK?

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Tennessee. So we got some Tennessee roots.

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Serious roots.

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'Every clue I get is just another piece

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'of the puzzle to my life and who I am.'

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Education was in our blood.

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And the importance of education is here in black and white,

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right in front of me.

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To find out more about William Fields's career,

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Vanessa is flying south from Baltimore to Nashville.

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She's arranged to meet Kathy Lauder

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from the Tennessee State Library and Archives,

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at the State Capitol Building.

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This is a bust that we just installed

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in the statue of Sampson Keeble,

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who was the first African-American legislator in Tennessee.

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I thought you might like to see this first. We're proud of this.

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Sampson Keeble.

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First African-American representative

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to the Tennessee State Legislature.

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19th century... SHE GASPS

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Look at the... W...

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-William A Fields?

-Yes!

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-Whoa. From Shelby County.

-That would be someone you know.

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You're k...

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So he was...

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He was a legislator from Shelby County.

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And he served in the Tennessee House of Representatives.

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-Fantastic!

-One of the first African-Americans elected.

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So it was very impressive.

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Wow.

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And those are his dates? From 1885 to 1886.

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He was in the 44th General Assembly.

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Phenomenal.

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This is... This is where he actually would come to work?

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-Yes.

-Wow.

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In this very building. It was like this. It hasn't changed.

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Very impressive.

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Wow!

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If you'd like, we can go inside.

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-Sure. I'd love to see where he worked.

-Go right around here.

-OK.

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It's been extraordinary discovery

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to find out that my ancestor, William A Fields,

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made history here in Tennessee.

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I made history in my own right.

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But this is where it all begins.

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This is the photograph of the 44th General Assembly.

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And your ancestor is number 33,

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closest to the legend there.

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And that's William A Fields.

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-Look!

-There he is.

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Oh, my gosh.

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Amazing that I can put a face to the name.

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And we've made you a copy of his picture to take with you.

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Oh, my God.

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This is amazing!

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Wow.

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We know roughly where the Shelby Delegation sat.

0:18:570:19:00

-Would you like to go sit over there where he sat?

-I would love to see where he sat.

0:19:000:19:04

Oh, my God.

0:19:040:19:05

The first thing I'd like to show you

0:19:110:19:13

is the certificate of election

0:19:130:19:15

that he brought in when he was elected and came in.

0:19:150:19:18

And how did that happen,

0:19:180:19:20

a coloured man in Tennessee to be elected?

0:19:200:19:23

Well, about the time of the Civil War,

0:19:230:19:26

a fourth of the population of Tennessee were slaves.

0:19:260:19:29

-A fourth of the population?

-And so after the war ended,

0:19:290:19:32

some of the counties had a higher percentage

0:19:320:19:35

of black residents than white residents.

0:19:350:19:37

And so once these people started to vote,

0:19:370:19:40

then there showed up black people in a lot of the local positions

0:19:400:19:44

-as well as, here, someone coming to the house.

-Fantastic.

0:19:440:19:48

They've come right out of slavery. Nobody believes they're human.

0:19:480:19:51

Some people don't think they're people.

0:19:510:19:53

It was a very tough time for them,

0:19:530:19:55

trying to pass these laws, trying to improve their lot.

0:19:550:19:58

They had just a small window of opportunity to do that.

0:19:580:20:02

So we're watching this window, which starts in 1867,

0:20:020:20:05

when the vote is available, getting narrower and narrower until finally,

0:20:050:20:10

a couple of administrations after this one, it's gone.

0:20:100:20:13

So he's toward the tail end.

0:20:130:20:15

He's the next-to-the-last group.

0:20:150:20:17

From 1888 until 1965,

0:20:170:20:20

there were no black faces in the House of Representatives.

0:20:200:20:23

-It was 77 years.

-Oh! You got to be kidding.

0:20:230:20:26

No. This was the beginning of something

0:20:260:20:28

that would go on for a very long time.

0:20:280:20:31

-So just when you think you've made progress...

-Mm-hm.

0:20:310:20:34

I'm learning what a noble and pioneering man William A Fields was.

0:20:350:20:40

But it's left me with more questions than answers.

0:20:400:20:42

What happened in Tennessee that prevented

0:20:420:20:45

any more African-American men from holding office

0:20:450:20:48

for almost 80 years?

0:20:480:20:49

And what happened to William after he left office?

0:20:490:20:53

Vanessa is heading to Memphis, where William A Fields

0:20:540:20:57

was listed in the 1880 census with his family.

0:20:570:20:59

She has an appointment with Dr Beverly Bond

0:21:010:21:04

at the public library.

0:21:040:21:06

You must be Beverly.

0:21:060:21:08

Beverly is an expert on 19th-century African-American history.

0:21:080:21:12

There seemed to be a significant amount of time

0:21:140:21:16

where there were no people of colour - men of colour -

0:21:160:21:19

that were serving as a representative for years.

0:21:190:21:22

Can you tell me why that is?

0:21:220:21:25

Blacks have voted in Tennessee from the late 1860s.

0:21:250:21:29

-Right.

-But in the 1880s and into the 1890s,

0:21:290:21:33

you begin to see that closing of opportunities.

0:21:330:21:35

In the 1890s, states likes Tennessee and Mississippi

0:21:350:21:38

changed their constitutions

0:21:380:21:40

and make it more difficult for blacks to vote

0:21:400:21:43

with poll taxes, sometimes literacy tests.

0:21:430:21:46

Residency requirements.

0:21:460:21:47

You have the violence that comes about in the 1880s.

0:21:470:21:51

-Lynching.

-And 1890s.

0:21:510:21:53

The lynchings. The race riots.

0:21:530:21:55

In Tennessee, you've got this racial violence

0:21:550:22:00

that's, in a sense, being organised -

0:22:000:22:02

um, to use the terms of today -

0:22:020:22:04

into terroristic organisations like the Klan

0:22:040:22:07

that were established primarily

0:22:070:22:10

to maintain a sense of pre-Civil War order in the south.

0:22:100:22:16

After the Civil War, the South was in ruin.

0:22:160:22:19

Southern states were forced to rejoin the Union

0:22:190:22:22

and to acknowledge the freedom of their former slaves.

0:22:220:22:26

In 1866, the Ku Klux Klan was formed by ex-Confederates

0:22:260:22:30

in Tennessee in an effort to restore

0:22:300:22:32

what they considered to be proper social order.

0:22:320:22:35

To add to the rising racial tension,

0:22:350:22:38

by the 1880s, the southern states had enacted the Jim Crow laws,

0:22:380:22:42

statutes that legalised segregation.

0:22:420:22:46

The Jim Crow laws and the violence wrought

0:22:460:22:49

by groups like the Ku Klux Klan

0:22:490:22:51

effectively eliminated the strides made

0:22:510:22:53

by African-Americans like William A Fields after the Civil War.

0:22:530:22:57

-So, like, systematically squeezed out.

-Yes. Yes.

0:22:570:23:02

That's one part of the story. The other part is within that place

0:23:020:23:05

that they are being pushed into,

0:23:050:23:07

they create these strong black communities

0:23:070:23:10

-with their own schools and their churches.

-Right.

0:23:100:23:14

So it's, you know, it's a very prideful community

0:23:140:23:17

that is struggling against segregation.

0:23:170:23:20

As an example,

0:23:200:23:21

erm, Tyler Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church

0:23:210:23:25

is a clear reference that we can use.

0:23:250:23:28

It's a church that was started by former slaves

0:23:280:23:30

in the aftermath of the Civil War.

0:23:300:23:32

Eventually, it is... It says it was burned

0:23:320:23:35

by the Ku Klux Klan.

0:23:350:23:37

Oh. Wow.

0:23:370:23:38

If you look a little further,

0:23:380:23:40

you'll see some of the early ministers who are listed there,

0:23:400:23:44

but also the Sunday school superintendents.

0:23:440:23:47

And if you just look down the list...

0:23:470:23:49

Look at this. "The honourable WA Fields.

0:23:490:23:51

-"Resigned and deceased."

-Mm-hm.

0:23:510:23:54

And then we have a copy of his...

0:23:540:23:56

Obituary?

0:23:560:23:58

A small obituary from the local newspaper.

0:23:580:24:01

"William A Fields, a justice of the peace,

0:24:010:24:04

"died yesterday morning at 5:00 at his home

0:24:040:24:07

"in his 52nd year."

0:24:070:24:09

52!

0:24:090:24:10

"He was a negro member of the County Court

0:24:110:24:14

"and had the respect of that entire court,

0:24:140:24:18

"having been a justice of the peace for ten years."

0:24:180:24:21

That's the first time I've heard about the County Court

0:24:210:24:24

being associated with his name.

0:24:240:24:27

-Yes.

-So his knowledge and his education served him well.

0:24:270:24:31

It is so heartbreaking for me to know

0:24:310:24:33

that my great, great grandfather died

0:24:330:24:35

before he was able to see any progress

0:24:350:24:37

in the fight against segregation.

0:24:370:24:41

Vanessa knows that William A Fields was a member of the court,

0:24:420:24:46

so her next stop is the Shelby County Archives.

0:24:460:24:48

Oh, my.

0:24:500:24:51

She's looking for any information on William's court record.

0:24:510:24:56

I found something for you in the Quarterly Court.

0:24:560:24:59

-Big red book.

-Mm-hmm.

0:25:020:25:03

"Minutes. July 1898 to July 1899."

0:25:050:25:10

William A Fields served on the Quarterly Court.

0:25:100:25:13

And I did find something interesting

0:25:130:25:16

here on page 250.

0:25:160:25:17

-There.

-OK. WA Fields.

0:25:190:25:21

"The committee appointed at the present term

0:25:210:25:24

"of this court to draft resolutions

0:25:240:25:26

"touching the death of WA Fields, Esquire.

0:25:260:25:30

"William A Fields was born near Fisherville

0:25:300:25:35

"in Shelby County about 52 years ago."

0:25:350:25:39

Fisherville. Near Fisherville.

0:25:390:25:41

Where... where... What was Fisherville like?

0:25:410:25:44

Well, at that time, when he was born,

0:25:440:25:46

that would've been a cotton plantation area.

0:25:460:25:49

And, most likely, he was born a slave on a plantation.

0:25:490:25:52

Ah.

0:25:520:25:54

"He was faithful and true.

0:25:550:25:57

"Discharging with fidelity every trust

0:25:570:26:01

"confided to his keeping.

0:26:010:26:03

"While he has not left large earthly riches

0:26:040:26:07

"to his afflicted family,

0:26:070:26:09

"he has bequeathed them a legacy more precious than gold,

0:26:090:26:13

"more imperishable than monumental brass -

0:26:130:26:17

"a spotless name."

0:26:170:26:18

Wow.

0:26:210:26:23

He sounds a lot like my dad.

0:26:240:26:27

And this is...

0:26:270:26:28

This is my dad's story.

0:26:290:26:31

Of a man who taught and changed people's lives.

0:26:330:26:38

Was faithful and true to his family.

0:26:380:26:41

And it's like reading the story of my father's life.

0:26:420:26:46

But this is 100 years before he was ever alive. It's...

0:26:460:26:52

It's extraordinary.

0:26:530:26:55

And it just makes me so proud of the men

0:26:550:26:59

that I am descended from

0:26:590:27:01

and the family that I come from.

0:27:010:27:05

SHE EXHALES Wow.

0:27:060:27:09

Vanessa's journey is over.

0:27:120:27:14

So now she's heading home to Los Angeles

0:27:140:27:17

to share her discoveries with her mother, her brother, Chris,

0:27:170:27:20

and one of her daughters, Sasha.

0:27:200:27:21

-So you're glad you went?

-Oh, it was fantastic.

0:27:250:27:28

I wish I could've taken you on every step.

0:27:280:27:30

-Wow.

-I never thought I'd find two pictures of ancestors that far back.

0:27:300:27:35

-Exactly.

-Amazing.

0:27:350:27:36

-Oh, Dad would be so...

-He would be delirious with excitement.

0:27:360:27:39

..so excited. Oh, my goodness.

0:27:390:27:42

The through line that I get

0:27:420:27:44

from my two great, great grandfathers

0:27:440:27:46

is that the men in my life have been heroes

0:27:460:27:50

that have made a difference and been there for their families.

0:27:500:27:54

What I loved about this journey

0:27:540:27:56

was the amazing parallel with my dad's legacy.

0:27:560:28:01

The fact that my dad served in the army,

0:28:010:28:03

that he was a schoolteacher,

0:28:030:28:06

er, he was...he was very heroic in his life.

0:28:060:28:10

And it's my responsibility to teach my own children

0:28:110:28:15

the value of their roles in history,

0:28:150:28:18

just as my father taught me.

0:28:180:28:20

E-mail us at [email protected]

0:28:500:28:53

Actress Vanessa L Williams, who faced racial prejudice when she became the first black woman to be crowned Miss America, goes on the trail of two of her ancestors who fought courageously to extend the rights and freedoms of black people in the USA.

Her ancestor David Carll was one of the first to enlist after the ban on black soldiers serving on the Union side of the Civil War was lifted and, at the National Archives in Washington, DC, Vanessa uncovers an unbelievably rare tintype photograph of him.

Going further back, Vanessa uncovers another ancestor, William A Fields, who not only went from slave to schoolteacher in little more than 20 years, but ended up serving as a legislator in the Tennessee National Assembly. Through the pioneering work of her ancestor, Vanessa is able to see how in the nineteenth century black people briefly glimpsed the possibility of human rights before the segregation laws, violence and intimidation of the Ku Klux Klan closed that door again. It would be nearly 100 years before another African-American would be elected to office.


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