Following the Civil War, one way that millions of liberated African Americans searched for lost relatives was by writing letters.
Hawkins Wilson, born into slavery and torn from his family as a boy, wrote several to the Freedmen’s Bureau in hopes of locating his siblings.
“Dear Sir, I am anxious to learn about my sisters, from whom I have been separated many years. I have never heard from them since I left Virginia twenty four years ago,” Wilson wrote from Galveston, Texas, on May 11, 1867.
“I am in hopes that they are still living and I am anxious to hear how they are getting on. I have no other one to apply to but you and am persuaded that you will help who stands in need of your services as I do. I shall be very grateful to you if you oblige me in this matter.”
Wilson’s letters went unanswered — until now.
Wilson’s letters were discovered in Ancestry’s digitized collection of more than 3.5 million Freedmen’s Bureau records and featured in a new docu-style film, “A Dream Delivered: The Lost Letters of Hawkins Wilson.”
In the film, professional genealogist Nicka Sewell-Smith guides Wilson’s descendants on a journey that involves stops in Texas, Virginia and North Carolina to learn about their ancestor’s life and legacy, culminating in a special family reunion with relatives.
The film’s release date is Friday, June 17, ahead of Juneteenth, which commemorates the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States. The full film can be viewed on Ancestry.com/blackhistory starting Friday.
“Finding your ancestors’ names and stories on Ancestry is possible and unearthing them can shine a light that helps guide us going forward,” Sewell-Smith said in an email to the Deseret News. “What I love about this film is that it’s about one family’s journey, but it’s actually so much bigger than that. This is just one story of so many others that can be unlocked for families. The more people who explore their family history, the richer the experience is for everyone — and the more we uncover as a society, the more we can recognize our shared humanity.”
“A Dream Delivered” is hosted by actor Anthony Anderson (“Black-ish”, “Law & Order”) and features historian and television host Henry Louis Gates Jr. Rashidi Harper directed the movie, which was produced by Velocity, Paramount’s in-house branded content studio.
“I believe you can’t know who you are without knowing where you come from,” Anderson said in a news release. “A few years ago, I began tracing my own family’s roots and those discoveries have propelled me forward ever since — not just in my career, but also who I am personally. I stand on the shoulders of ancestors who helped guide my path and I’m grateful and humbled by that knowledge. I’m proud to be part of this film to help show what’s possible to unlock, especially for the Black community.”
Gates believes Wilson’s story can inspire a generation of Black Americans to find their lost history through new historical records and DNA research tools that weren’t as available in years past.
“I have been studying genealogy for more than 60 years and there’s no denying family history can be challenging for Black Americans, but there’s never been a more important time to discover our truths,” he said. “The more we uncover our history as a society, the more we can recognize our shared humanity.”
“A Dream Delivered” will be available through the CBS News digital streaming network on Paramount+ and Pluto TV starting June 19.