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 ancestry.com 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.



Troy D. Johnson is the President, founder and webmaster of AALBC.com, LLC (The African American Literature Book Club). Launched in March of 1998, AALBC.com has grown to become the largest and most frequently visited website dedicated to books and films by and about people of African descent.

  • This is an excellent article! I am glad you were able to help your grandmother to achieve self-love!
    The description of the dancing and chanting is poetic!
    I have checked out Ancestry.com for their 14 day trial period and was able to discover a lot about both sides of my family also.
    Thank you.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed Cheryl’s story Karen. I look forward to sharing your story here too. I have more coming.

  • Lynda M Sampson

    This is an excellent article. I could totally relate to the issue of skin color. I can remember even as a young child understanding my grandmother’s dislike of her son-in-law and its basis on the color of his dark skin. My mother and grandmother were very fair skin and later I found that they were listed in various census years as mulatto. Thank God for the sixties when we were able to embrace our rainbow hues with long lost love. Like Cheryl I have also researched my family history, and even though I have not unearth the treasures that she has it has been a rewarding experience to find my ancestors. I encourage everyone to find their roots, it will definitely give them wings.

    • Hey Lynda it is really interesting of you reflect how significant an impact this issue of color had on our culture.
      My grandmother, had only one white grandparent, the rest of her family was listed as white or mulatto on the US Census. However by the 1930 census, she’d married my grandfather, a Black man, was listed Negro: http://aalbc.com/blog/?p=396

      • Lynda M Sampson

        Thank you so much Troy for sharing your post! That picture of your ancestors is priceless. So many of us start to search for our ancestors so late that oral histories and documents are long gone, but Ancestry.com can open so many doors. I certainly agree with SF that it is a way of taking our history back.

        Congratulations on getting back to 1850, that is a milestone. I have been using Ancestry.com off and on for several years, but I have been hitting roadblocks since the beginning. But for me, it is a way of honoring my ancestors and all those who have gone before me to search them out. It is so much more than just adding names to my family tree, it is a way of “knowing” our history and ourselves. It is a way of not only studying African American history within American history but the regional histories of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and more.

        Troy, I totally agree with you about Black History Month. Our history happens 365 days a year and by searching out the past and sharing it with others we are making that happen.

  • @Karen & Lynda – thanks for the kind words! Really appreciate it!

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