February 04, 2011 07:26 PM by Shayla Perry
Miss the season 2 premiere of Who Do You Think You Are? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered! Keep reading to find out what Desperate Housewives star Vanessa Williams found out about her family’s history on the NBC reality show.
Tonight on the season 2 premiere of Who Do You Think You Are? on NBC, actress Vanessa Williams of Desperate Housewives embarks on a journey to discover her family’s history, inspired by the passing of her father, Milton Williams, Jr., “searching for his roots on his behalf.”
Her search begins at Pine Hollow Cemetery in Long Island, New York where her father and other family members are buried. There, Williams finds the headstone of her great great grandfather, David Carll, whom she believes served in the Civil War from 1861-1865.
Vanessa then goes to meet with the Oyster Bay historian, who reveals that David Carll enlisted in the military in the very first week that blacks were permitted to do so. Williams also finds out that on January 7, 1864, 5 days after enlisting, David Carll purchased a plot of land for $200, and that he did, in fact, survive the war. But in order to find out what happened to David Carll after leaving the service, she’d have to go to the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
First, Williams decides to visit Ancestry.com to check the Census records and is surprised to learn that David Carll’s wife was white, which tells her that even then, her family had a history of breaking down racial barriers.
At the National Archives, Vanessa Williams is shown an entire file on her great great grandfather, David Carll, and shockingly finds that he was born a free man, and was NEVER a slave. Williams also gets to see a photograph of David Carll in his Union uniform, which he dared to have taken despite risking enslavement if caught while serving in the South.
To learn more about David Carll’s service in South Carolina, she heads to John’s Island, the location of the Battle of Bloody Bridge, where her great great grandfather fought. There, a historian reveals that although the Civil War ended while he was stationed in South Carolina, Carll’s work was not done. He stayed to ensure that the Emancipation Proclamation was enforced, and that other people of color were able to live free as he did.
Now, in order to find out more about the Williams side of her family, Vanessa Williams travels to Baltimore, Maryland to see her uncle, Earl Williams, who shares some family photos with her. Her Uncle Earl tells her about John Hill Williams, her great grandfather on her father’s side, who was a barber in Memphis, TN.
In Memphis, she learns that her great grandfather ran his own barber shop, and that his wife’s name (a family mystery) was Mary Fields. Vanessa Williams is shown the obituary of Mary Fields, who died when she was 38, the daughter of a William Fields.
William Fields, Vanessa Williams’ great great grandfather, was a school teacher, just like her parents.
She then travels to the state capitol in Tennessee, where she learns that William Fields was one of the first African Americans elected to the state legislature! Not only does Williams get to see where Fields worked, but she also has the opportunity to sit in the very seat where he once sat there in the capitol building.
Williams is also shown Fields’ Certificate of Election, and is told the story of how he was able to be elected so soon after the Civil War, when many counties had a larger number of black residents.
During his time in the legislature, Fields tried desperately to fight for laws to ensure that all people received a quality education, but unfortunately, those laws were not passed, and Vanessa learns that no other African American men served in the state legislature for over 70 years.
To find out why, Williams travels to Memphis and discovers that in the 1890′s measures were taken to make it more difficult for blacks to vote, and that organized groups like the KKK caused a lot of racial tension. Soon thereafter, Jim Crowe laws were put into effect, segregating the area.
In that time, William Fields served as a Sunday school Superintendent, but died at just 52 years old. In his obituary, Vanessa Williams learns that Fields was a Justice of the Peace, so she then goes to the Shelby County Archives, looking for records of her great great grandfather’s service.
There, she learns that Fields was likely born a slave, and is brought to tears realizing the similarities between the lives of William Fields and her father, overwhelmed with pride, and ready to pass on the heroic story of her ancestors to the rest of her family.
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Photo credit: NBC