While actress and singer Vanessa Williams made history by becoming the first African American woman to be crowned Miss America, one of her ancestors was among a group that made an important first in Tennessee history. Recently, the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) helped the “Desperate Housewives” star trace her Tennessee lineage.
In the Feb. 4 episode of the popular genealogy tracking show “Who Do You Think You Are?” TSLA’s research specialist Kathy Lauder helped Williams uncover the history of her West Tennessee ancestors. Williams was delighted to learn that her paternal great grandfather, William Feilds, was a teacher just like both of her parents. But Lauder’s findings surprised Williams, who is perhaps best known for her hit song "Save the Best for Last.”
The episode aired on NBC-affiliated television stations across the country. To view the episode online, go here.
Following Emancipation, Feilds (also spelled “Fields”) was one of fourteen African Americans elected to the Tennessee General Assembly during Reconstruction. Representing northwest Shelby County from 1885 to 1886, he advocated for fair labor laws and advanced education opportunities. Feilds went on to serve his community nobly as a notary public, justice of the peace, census taker and county magistrate until his death in 1898.
Lauder’s research work caught NBC’s attention last summer, when they first inquired about her findings on Feilds. Camera crews arrived to film at the TSLA and State Capitol in October, taking great care to maintain historical accuracy and use information only from primary sources.
TSLA provided antique photographs, records of General Assembly proceedings, Feild’s certificate of election and several hand-written copies of bills that he introduced. Tennessee’s historical records also include a statue just outside of the Tennessee House of Representatives chamber that commemorates the first black legislators. Feilds’s name is included on the plaque in that exhibit.
Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State.
“It is vital that the history of our black legislators be preserved and we are pleased that NBC has taken an interest in the TSLA,” said Secretary of State Tre Hargett. “This show will give those across the country a lesson in Tennessee’s rich history and the state’s vast archival collection.”
To read more about Feilds and Tennessee's other African-American legislators during Reconstruction, go to: http://www.state.tn.us/tsla/exhibits/blackhistory/index.htm