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Spoiler Alert: If you don’t already know what happened during Vanessa Williams’
episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” you are about to find out.
Actress Vanessa Williams’ ancestors’ lives make for an interesting episode of NBC’s
“WDYTYA.” She traces her roots back to two of her great-great-grandfathers, exploring
their remarkable lives.
Williams starts her research by visiting her father’s grave in Oyster Bay, NY. She
jots down information she finds on the headstones of her father’s 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 Carll’s Compiled Military Service Record. National Archives researcher
Vonnie Zullo pulls out an original tintype from Carll’s CMSR, saying it’s the only
one she’s come across in her 20-plus years at the depository.
From Carll’s 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
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-grandfather’s
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 father’s side of her family. He directs her to Tennessee to pursue John Hill Williams,
In the 1910 census, Williams finds her great-grandfather’s wife’s name, Mary Williams.
She then reads Mary’s obituary, which reveals her father’s 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 Field’s
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
“And here they come, right out of slavery, no one even believes they are human yet
– there are people who don’t think that they’re 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 father’s 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!