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Former slave's letters searching for lost loved ones helps reunite family more than a century later

'You can rest because your letter has been delivered. We are taking the baton and passing it on to other family members,' Hawkins Wilson's descendant said.

Former slave's letters searching for lost loved ones helps reunite family more than a century later
Cover Image Source: Instagram/Ancestry

Editor's note: This article was originally published on June 20, 2022. It has since been updated. 

When Kelley Dixon Tealer and her mother, Alva Marie Jenkins, set out to learn more about their ancestral roots, they had no idea their search would help realize a dream that was more than 150 years old. Speaking to Good Morning America, Tealer explained that it was the death of a loved one that inspired her to know more about her family's history. "I wanted to stay close to my grandparents and when they both transitioned, I just wanted to keep that piece of history. I wanted to dig more," the Houston native shared. Determined to know more about those who'd come before her, Tealer turned to Ancestry, a Utah-based genealogy company.


Her search took on a historical significance when Dr. Nicka Sewell-Smith, an Ancestry genealogist, discovered through the Freedmen's Bureau records that Jenkins and Tealer were second and third-generation granddaughters of Hawkins Wilson, a former slave who was separated from his family when he was sold as a boy. According to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the United States Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands—aka Freedmen's Bureau—is a collection of records compiled by Congress following the Civil War to "help formerly enslaved people make the transition from slavery to freedom and citizenship."


Following the war, the Bureau was tasked with trying to reconnect families who were separated during slavery and helping formerly enslaved people transition into the workforce. Twenty-four years after he was taken from his family, Wilson—then living as a free man in Galveston, Texas—sent letters to the Freedman's Bureau seeking to reconnect with his siblings. "Dear sir, I am anxious to learn about my sisters, from whom I have been separated for many years," Wilson wrote in a letter to the Bureau chief that was delivered to the agency on May 11, 1867. "I have never heard from them since I left Virginia twenty-four years ago. I am in hopes that they are still living and I am anxious to hear how they are getting on."



Although Wilson sent several letters for his family to the bureau, they never made it to his relatives as they were sent to the wrong county. In a letter to his sister Jane, he wrote: "Dear Sister Jane, your little brother Hawkins is trying to find out where you are and where his poor old mother is. Let me know and I will come to you. I should never forget the bag of biscuits you made for me the last night I spent with you. Your advice to me to meet you in heaven has never passed from my mind. And I have endeavored to live as near to my God so that if he saw fit not to suffer us to meet on earth, we might indeed meet in heaven."



In his letters, Wilson also detailed his life in Galveston as a free-working man, a husband and a devout Christian. "I'm writing to you tonight, my dear sister, with my Bible in my hand, praying almighty God to bless you and preserve you and me to meet again," he wrote. Although it is unknown whether Wilson's efforts ever bore fruit in his lifetime, Sewell-Smith was able to use the names he mentioned in his letters along with other historical records and Freedman's Bureau documents to connect Tealer and Jenkins, his descendants.


"What the Freedman's Bureau does is it helps us scale the wall or in essence, blow the wall up because it really peers into a very specific period right after enslavement, where these individuals were walking into their economy, their lives, how they wanted to be referred to in terms of their names and who they wanted to work for," Sewell-Smith explained. "And Hawkins was just enough of a cookie crumb for us to be able to connect him back to the ancestors and the family that he had been ripped apart from." Tealer and Jenkins realized Wilson's dream by when they were able to find and meet their sixth cousins, Valerie Gray Holmes and Linda Epps Parks, who are descendants of Wilson's Uncle Jim.



The relatives met for the first time in April 2021 while filming a new documentary by Ancestry titled "A Dream Delivered: The Lost Letters of Hawkins Wilson," which follows Tealer and Jenkins' search to reconnect with other Wilson descendants. "I felt like I had known Kelley and her mom all my life. I felt connected to them. It just was genuine," said Epps Parker, who revealed she overcame with emotion during the meeting. "You can rest because your letter has been delivered," she added, addressing Wilson. "We are taking the baton and passing it on to other family members." Meanwhile, Tealer still hopes to find Wilson's sister Jane's descendants someday. If she had the chance, she said, she would tell Jane: "I found your brother, Hawkins. Can I read you his letters? Tell me about your journey. What have you been doing in these past 24 years?"

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