Snow is bad; Vanessa Williams is good


Will you think less of me if I admit I'm starting to dislike snow?

I understand it's importance for snowmen, snowballs, snow forts, snowmobiles and Sarah Palin. Still, there's just too much of it.

Scientists tell us that 12.2 inches of it fell in Lansing, Mich., where I live. Scientists, however, often confuse inches and meters and such. All I know is that there were several feet of it that I've been shoveling during the last two days.

Meanwhile, I've been writing stories, sending them to papers and worrying about the rest: In the midst of snowstorms, can people put out a full newspaper and get it to readers? Just in case, I've decided to also put some of the stories here. I'll start with this one about Vanessa Williams and "Who Do You Think You Are?" -- an excellent show that starts its second season at 8 p.m. Friday on NBC, then has reruns at 7 and 8 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday:

 

By MIKE HUGHES

Vanessa Williams had always thought she
had a strong grasp of black history.

She became part of that history
herself, as the first black Miss America. Earlier, her parents –
both educators – told her about the classic struggles; it turns
out, there was much more to learn.

“I thought … the '60s, that's when
all the change came,” Williams said. “But I was fascinated (to
learn) it came 100 years before then.”

It came – and vanished. For a
post-Civil War moment, Southern blacks had equality and elective
office.

Williams learned that while digging
into her family roots for “Who Do You Think You Are?” The result
airs Friday, to launch the NBC show's second season, then reruns Sunday.

With access to experts in history and
genealogy, Williams visited Memphis. “There were 14 black
legislators (in Tennessee) after the emancipation, in the 1800s,”
she said. “I had no idea.”

One of them was William A. Fields, a
grandfather of her father's father. A teacher, he was elected to an
1885-86 term in the legislature. Two years later, new laws –
literacy tests, poll taxes and more – would end that era; from 1888
to 1965, Williams learned, Tennessee had no black legislators.

She visited both sides of her father's
family tree, seeing opposite Civil War regions.

David Carl – a grandfather of her
father's mother – joined New York's first black infantry unit, at a
time when the South said any captured blacks would become slaves. “He
was born a free man,” Williams said. “The fact that he took that
risk to be killed in battle (or) to be enslaved … was
extraordinary.”

The move paid off financially: With his
bonus money for enlisting, Carl bought land in Oyster Bay, on Long
Island Sound; it became a key part of family history. “My dad was
born there,” Williams said. “My grandmother was born there. So we
knew that was our home base.”

And the enlistment may have paid off
emotionally. After the war, his unit went from plantation to
plantation, making sure the slaves knew they were free.

One of the people freed by the war was
William Fields. He had been owned by a Princeton-educated family that
apparently made sure (despite laws against it) their slaves learned
to read. He went on to be a teacher, legislator and general pillar.

Such stories are at the heart of the
series. Lisa Kudrow, the show's producer, points to a strong moment
in the first season: “Spike Lee found out that his ancestor was
made to work in a munitions factory, to make guns for the
Confederates to kill the people who were coming to enforce
Emancipation.”

Kudrow, the former “Friends” star,
also had a strong moment last season. (That episode is scheduled to
rerun Sunday.) She walked the path her great-grandmother took to her
death in the Holocaust.

For Williams, the emotions were more
positive. She was struck by a written description of her
great-great-grandfather's devotion “to education, to making a
difference in his community, to being a solid man. And that one
sentence that says: 'He left a spotless name.' That was eerily
reflective of my father.”

He was a music teacher, married to
another music teacher. Vanessa grew up in New York's Westchester
County, then went on to get a Tony nomination, three Emmy nominations
and 16 Grammy nominations. And now she's learned of the impressive
history that preceded her.

– “Who Do You Think You Are?”

– 8 p.m. Fridays, NBC; Vanessa
Williams in the opener, Tim McGraw a week later on Feb. 11

– Six others scheduled for this
second season – Rosie O'Donnell, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd, Kim
Cattrall, Steve Buscemi and Lionel Richie

– Also, on Super Bowl Sunday (Feb.6),
NBC plans to rerun the Williams episode at 7 p.m. and last season's
Lisa Kudrow episode at 8