Chris Berkey/ NBC
Vanessa Williams says she was fearless when it came to discovering her roots for the NBC series "Who Do You Think You Are?" And the fact that she might dig up a scandal or a scoundrel on her family tree didn't faze her at all.
"I was so anxious to do it," the "Desperate Housewives" star says. "As an African American growing up here in the States, there are a lot of records that we don't have. I was really fascinated to see how far back we could go on both sides. The journey that I went on was extraordinary and very surprising, but also really gratifying."
Happily for Vanessa, her search for her roots revealed surprisingly uplifting family secrets. Her great-great-grandfather David Carll was born a free man, who enlisted to fight in the Union's first black militia unit -- the U.S. 26th Colored Infantry -- in New York during the Civil War, and used his signing money to buy his family a plot of land.
"Before the journey, I had really no defined idea of where my lineage went," Vanessa says. "I knew that in terms of my David Carll side [her father's father's father], I knew that the hill, Carll's Hill, where David Carll purchased the property after he got his bounty to serve in the Civil War, we knew that that was there for a long time."
But Vanessa's Southern roots -- her father's mother's father's father -- were a mystery. So imagine her astonishment when she discovered that her great-great-grandfather became a legislator in Tennessee following his release from slavery at the conclusion of the Civil War.
"The only clue [for my grandmother's lineage] was in Memphis, Tennessee," she says. "The fact that there were 14 black legislators after the Emancipation in the 1800s … I had no idea. That was the fascinating part. You know, I thought, obviously, in my lifetime with the Civil Rights Movement in the '60s, that's when all the change came, but I was fascinated that it came 100 years before then."
Even more amazing for Vanessa was the fact that she was able to obtain photos of both of her great-great-grandfathers. David had turned in a tintype when he registered for the army and William A. Fields' photo was taken when he joined the Tennessee legislature.
"My family I cherish, and I've always thought that the lessons that I'd learned from two parents that were teachers made me who I am as a woman and as a mother myself," Vanessa says. "So to be able to step back in time to both of my great-great-grandfathers and see the contributions that they'd made historically filled me with pride. It reaffirms that I come from strong stock. It was a tremendous journey and I would love to investigate more."
"Who Do You Think You Are?" returns for its second season on Friday, Feb. 4 at 8 p.m. on NBC.