Cheryl Wills is an icon in broadcast journalism and has been a staple on New York City television sets for the past three decades. A native New Yorker, joining New York One was a natural transition for her. She has been so successful on the small screen, some would say, because she is as much a New Yorker as the viewer to whom she reports the news.
Wills comes from a historic family with roots extending more than 200 years in Tennessee. Her father, Clarence Wills, born on a former-slave plantation in West Tennessee, was among the first African American firefighters to be integrated into the Fire Department of New York. Joining the department’s oldest engine company, Engine Company 1, Ladder Company 24, her father made a career out of protecting lives and property from fire. Wills sees her father’s service to the city as an inspiration and one of the reasons that she takes such pride in helping New Yorkers remain informed — another key to public safety.
“My father died when I was 13 in a motorcycle accident, and it’s important that I keep his legacy alive through my work as a journalist,” she says.
Wills has had an award-winning career in journalism. She is the first African American reporter in New York One’s history to win an Emmy Award. Wills has received the YMCA National Black Achievers in Industry Award, the Carl T. Rowan Leadership in Media Award and the coveted Harold Dow Lifetime Achievement Award for her “extraordinary and unparalleled contributions to broadcast media.” She has been given an Honorary Doctorate from the New York College of Health Professions in May of 2005.
“As someone who was raised in public housing in Queens, it means a lot to me to be recognized by my peers in the number one media market in the world,” she says. “I work with some of the best in the business, in television, print and radio. My colleagues are tough, and it has been an honor to work alongside them to break some of the biggest stories over the last 30 years.”
While most typically found on the anchor’s desk in her news programs, NY1 Live at Ten and In Focus with Cheryl Wills, her career has also brought her reporting to the big screen. Her reporting, or cameo appearances, has appeared on the reels of blockbuster films like Morbius with Jared Leto, Spider-Man 2, Freedomland starring Samuel L. Jackson, Ghostbusters and many others. She has a recurring role on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, playing herself, a dedicated New York City journalist.
“On a national basis, more people know me from Law & Order: SVU than the nightly news,” she says. “It’s a real thrill because this series has been on since 1999, it’s one of the longest-running crime dramas on television, and it’s a super honor to be part of a show that’s actually meaningful. This brings to light sex crimes in New York City, something that means a lot to me.”
Wills decided at a young age that she was going to be a journalist. She attended the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse, where she achieved a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism. The skills learned in her academic career are on display nightly, especially when conducting thorough, in-depth interviews with some of the world’s most powerful and noteworthy, including but not limited to sitting presidents, Nobel laureates and internationally recognized leaders, ranging from the African continent’s first-ever female President to the United Nations Secretary-General.
“I was a natural reporter, I always tell people,” Wills says. “I was lucky enough to have all four grandparents as a child, and I found them fascinating. All four of my grandparents were raised in the Jim Crow South, and I was a New Yorker. I was fascinated by their stories of life in oppression. My grandparents were my first interviewees, and they turned out to be historical figures in their own way.
“My maternal grandfather served in World War I in a segregated unit,” she continues. “He was overseas, and because he was in a Black unit, I do not think that they kept the same records for him — when I would do research, there was not a lot of detail on his service. But he shared his experiences with me and saw action, which is profound in its own regard.”
For Wills, it is clear, that telling stories is not just a profession, but a passion. She is an award-winning author, who has written about a variety of topics. Her most acclaimed book, Die Free: A Heroic Family Tale, details her great-great-great-grandfather’s life in which he fought for freedom on the battlefields of the Civil War after being born a Tennessee slave. Her second book tells the same story but is written for children, to share her forefather’s heroism with the next generation.
“What inspired me to write this story was that I did not hear (about) Sandy Wills as a child. No one ever told me that we had an ancestor that fought in the Civil War. It was pretty shocking that this story was never shared with my father or my grandfather. It’s also a testament to the state of oppression that they lived in at that time, living in abject poverty, which allowed this story to get lost — even though they were all in the same place.
“It was really the bringing together of my father’s life, which was cut short, and Sandy’s life, and my original goal was to learn more about both of these men,” says Wills.
She is publishing a new book that will become available wherever books are sold on May 3. The book is called Isn’t Her Grace Amazing!, which details the outstanding women of gospel music — many of whom have also been lost to history. She shows the correlation between the music of today and how its composition is intertwined with the history of gospel.
“These women carved their own path in the music industry in a male-dominated industry,” she adds. “The book features Mahalia Jackson, known as the ‘Queen of Gospel,’ who died in 1972. She was a force to be reckoned with, and she was beloved by all, including Martin Luther King. She sang at both the March on Washington and, tragically, at his untimely funeral, as well.”
“I hope that the next generation realizes that most of the music that they listen to today was born out of gospel,” she concludes. “These women were the precursor for hip-hop, pop and rock ’n’ roll, and you can not talk about today’s music without the foundational women of American music, who were the women of gospel.”
Todd Shapiro is an award-winning publicist and associate publisher of Dan’s Papers.