Monthly Archives: February 2011

Opal’s Jim Crow Blues – Research & Share Your Family History (Part 2)

Today’s blog post is by guest Cheryl Wills.  Cheryl, a television news anchor and reporter, has extensively researched her family’s history.  She has generously agreed to share a  story about her grandmother’s perspective on skin color.  Enjoy.

Opal Virginia Wills, circa 1940

I love my grandmother to pieces, but she just doesn’t get Black History Month.

She was born during the roaring twenties when half of America was doing the Charleston and the Lindy Hop – as African-Americans danced around the pitfalls of Jim Crow.

Regrettably, my grandma drank the kool-aid like so many of her time.  Born in Haywood County, Tennessee, she didn’t think black was beautiful – in fact she thought it was downright repulsive.  The blacker you were – the worse off you were. Although her skin color was of the deepest cocoa – she looked in the mirror and pitied her complexion.  She even married a light-skinned man with hopes that her children would not be as dark as she.


Die Free: A Heroic Family History
Die Free: A Heroic Family History
by Cheryl Wills

Her first born, my dad, Clarence, was the spitting image of her – color and all.  She adored him but was thankful that he was a boy – and not a girl.  A dark girl, she reckoned, would have a tougher time finding a man – which was all a mature girl was destined to do in her mind.  It was such a shame.  When I grew up during the turbulent 1960s, I recall my grandmother looking at me with that same unspoken pity.  I was a dark-skinned girl and Jim Crow was dead but it lived on in my grandma’s heart.  Opal never told me I was pretty – she never pushed me out front – she just looked at me and wished me well for what I was.  Like I was some cursed thing.   I would hear her brag about how pretty the lighter-skinned girls were in her presence – but she could never focus beyond my brownness.

As I grew older, I embraced my African identity.  Opal was puzzled.  As I read black literature by my favorite writers like Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and Maya Angelou, I learned to love and embrace my heritage, just like other Americans who were proud of their Irish, Italian, Asian and Latino backgrounds.  Although Jim Crow made Africa a dirty word, I did not accept such twisted logic and instead felt honored to call myself a daughter of Africa. 

Had Opal been properly educated in a society that viewed her without contempt, my grandmother would have been proud of our heritage, too. When Opal danced in the spirit inside a vibrant pentecostal church, she was wholly unaware that the motions of her fancy footsteps were set in motion long ago in Africa. The swivel of her hips and the songs that bounced off her tongue were not indigenous to North America; they were eerily reminiscent of a colorful African tribe.  

African American Collection


Her round stunning face and deep chocolate color came from a continent that she dared not even utter its name in personal references. When she spoke in tongues while enraptured in the spell of the Holy Spirit, even I could discern the native tongue of an African chant; Jim Crow tried to make her deny it—but it was right there in the fullness of her mouth. The music, her laughter, her strength, it was all from Mother Africa,  and it was something of which to be proud—not ashamed.

A couple of years back, I went on and unearthed an amazing family story of our ancestors who were brought from Africa and sold on slave auction blocks in Tennessee.  One ancestor in particular, Sandy Wills, went on to fight in the Civil War.  When I told Opal about my incredible find, she was pleasantly surprised.  No one had ever connected the dots for her before.  It was a needle on the record moment.

Opal is now 85 years old.  She told me I was beautiful the other day.  I proudly told her that she was too.

Cheryl Wills
Author, Anchor, Reporter

Here is a new video of Cheryl speaking about her new book.


For Black History Month: Research & Share Your Family History

Troy Johnson’s Maternal Father Rev. Freeman Foster his 2nd Wife Hazel and 8 of his 15 Children (circa 1933)

Every February someone asks me,
“What are you going to do for Black History Month?”
As trite as it might sound, I always reply,
“Every month is Black History Month at”

I view the question the same as, what are you gonna do for Mother’s day or Valentine’s day.  While I’m sure this is not the person’s intent, the implication is that we need a day to do something special for our mothers or a loved one.  Similarly, everyday is Mother’s day and Valentine’s day for me.

Today I decided to contradict myself and do something that was specifically motivated by Black History Month and share a small aspect of my family’s history.

The initial impetus actually came from a post made on my discussion board from a very popular contributor “Cynique”.  Cynique, a septuagenarian, wrote what I thought was a fascinating, piece about her recollections from he past.  The piece called “A Flashback black history ala Cynique” touched on her recollections of seeing Jackie Robinson, play against the Cubs at Wrigley Field, standing in line to view the mutilated body Emmitt Till, and more.  She personalized many of the things I’ve only read about in history books — things too many of our young people know nothing about.

African American Collection

Cynique’s stories (from time to time she will provide her personal perspective on historical and contemporary events) touch me because, I just don’t get enough of those stories from my own family.  Perhaps there is too much pain in those recollections, or maybe people have simply forgotten.

In any event, since so much of my history was stolen during that f’ed up institution of slavery, the failure to pass down family history today seems inexcusable.  I invest energy, time and money trying to reclaim this forgotten family history, because in many ways I’m reclaiming myself.

The photo above shows my maternal grandfather, Rev. Freeman Fenner Foster (seated center), and his family circa 1934.   The Rev. F.F. Foster though illiterate, was a shrewd businessman.  A family legend describes how Grandpa used to make marks in the dirt which were unintelligible anyone else, but was his unique system for tabulating.  He was known for not being easily taken advantage of in business transactions.

Rev. Foster was known for moving frequently (a characteristic my mom always say I inherited).  As an adult, he owned a large home and an automobile when most men of his time and background were struggling to survive.  By the time Rev. Foster passed in 1958, he’d accumulated over 900 acres of land in North Carolina.  That land is still in the family today.

Freeman’s 2nd wife the former Hazel Pulley (seated holding the baby) was considerably younger than he was.  Another story from the family tells how my oldest uncle (standing rear, left) was teased; “How’d you let your ‘ole man beat yo time?”.  Martha and Rev. Foster had nine children together, including my mom who was not born when this photo was taken.  Tragically, Hazel died in 1945 at the age of 36.

Two of the people pictured remain alive today.

Below is a copy of a portion of the 1850 US Census, which shows Hazel Pulley’s Great-Grandfather Jackson Pulley.  “Jack” was born abt 1815.

According to this census Jack was a farmer and owned about $100 worth of land.  Jackson is listed as “black” and his wife, Cinthya, is listed as “mulatto”.  I find it fascinating the my third great grandfather, a black man, was not enslaved in 1850.  Was he ever enslaved? Were his parents?  This is information I hope to learn one day.

Unfortunately, other than what this census record tells me, I know little else about Jackson Pulley.  I do know that all of Jackson’s descendants, their spouses and children where listed as mulatto or white in this and subsequent censuses (though by the 1920 census Hazel Pulley would be listed as “negro”).  We do not have any relationship with Hazel Pulley family.   I know the reason for the estrangement, but I’ll heed my mother’s advice, “Boy, don’t be puttin’ all your information in the street”.

I included links to the website  in this blog post and below.  I’ve had an account for over a decade now.  It has helped my research tremendously.  I previously performed this research manually by visiting the National Archives and it was a very tedious and time consuming effort.  Today, in a few minutes, I can pull up documents on my home computer.  In the past such a search may have taken days.

The teriffic thing about is that they will find related documents for you.  The information my come from other family tree, census records, passenger manifests, and other primary source documents.  The 1850 census I posted above was pulled from a few moments ago as I was writing this. helps you do DNA testing.  The results can be matched with others who have taken the test to help you find family members and distant relatives.   I now, as result of the DNA testing, my father’s line can be traced by to Western Africa, in a region where where Togo, Benin, and Ghana are today.

Also, the privacy settings allow you to decide what you want to share with others.  For example information about living people is hidden on my tree.

Please leave comments and link to stories about your family history.

Read Part 2: “Opal’s Jim Crow Blues” by Cheryl Wills.

Happy Black History Month,

African American Collection