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October 4, 2015

Vanessa Williams Previews 'Who Do You Think You Are?'

by Pat Gallagher, posted Feb 4th 2011 11:45AM
Vanessa WilliamsThe acclaimed alternative series 'Who Do You Think You Are?' is back for season 2 tonight (8PM ET, NBC), kicking off with 'Ugly Betty' and 'Desperate Housewives' actress Vanessa Williams.

In its first season, the show followed executive producer Lisa Kudrow; actors Matthew Broderick, Brooke Shields and Susan Sarandon; director Spike Lee; and former Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith as they traced their family trees on personal journeys of self-discovery.

In season 2, celebrities undertaking genealogical searches will include country superstar Tim McGraw, actors Steve Buscemi, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd, Kim Cattrall, talk show host / comedian Rosie O'Donnell and singer Lionel Richie.

Williams told TV Squad she decided to search her late father's ancestry so she could redefine her idea of what it's meant to be free.

As she began her journey taking flowers to her father's gravesite at Pine Hollow Cemetery in Oyster Bay, N.Y., she had no idea that her travels would take her to Washington, D.C., Charleston, S.C., Baltimore, and Nashville and Memphis, Tenn., where she ultimately discovered that two of her great-great-grandfathers were honorable men who served their country.

David Carl was born a free man in 1845 in New York and fought in the Union's 26th regiment in the Civil War. Meanwhile, William A. Fields, most likely born a slave on a plantation, eventually became a schoolteacher and made history by being one of the first African-Americans in the Tennessee House of Representatives. He also became a Justice of the Peace. (After Fields served, it would be 77 years before another African-American would serve in the Tennessee House.)

Williams admitted that before this journey she had no true idea of where her lineage went, but she was blown away by the heroics of both great-great-grandfathers.

"When we started to research and discover their heroic deeds," Williams explained to us, "I had no idea that not only what they accomplished was very honorable but the fact that they both could've easily been killed for doing what they did. I mean, we highlight in the show that as a colored, Union soldier, if David Carl was captured in the South, he could be enslaved -- not only besides [potentially] being killed in battle -- but to be enslaved, which was a tremendous sacrifice.

"And we talked a bit about William Fields' journey to the state capital as a colored representative and the fact that ... this is a time where after the Emancipation, it was still dangerous to travel as a freed black man. So, the risk that they both took to do what they ended up doing gave me a huge sense of discovery but also pride."

Williams, who explained in the show that she was the first black child in the Chappaqua, N.Y., school system to go from first through 12th grades, broke barriers by being crowned the first black Miss America in 1983. She was very curious to find out if any of her ancestors had been trailblazers. It turned out they were. David Carl married a white woman, which took some time to process for the actress. She speculated that it must have been very difficult in those days for them. "It was difficult in my lifetime, and I'm four generations after him," she said on the show.

As her story unfolds, Williams' journey is not only a history lesson, but a discovery of a heritage that she's proud to own. Her father, who was an elementary school music teacher, carried the baton which was handed down through family members generations before him. Education was a priority on both sides of her family.

"This is my dad's story of a man who taught and changed people's lives, who was faithful and true to his family," the actress said. "It's like reading the story of my father's life but this is 100 years before he was ever alive. It's extraordinary. It just makes me so proud of the men that I am descended from."

For more information on tracing your family roots, go to Ancestry.com. Catch Vanessa's story on 'Who Do You Think You Are?,' Friday, Feb. 4, 8PM ET on NBC.

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