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She found handwritten letters from her enslaved ancestor: ‘I’m just blown away’

Kelley Dixon-Tealer, left, Linda Epps Parker, Nicka Sewell-Smith, Valarie Gray Holmes and Marie Jenkins at their first meeting in April in Warren County, N.C. The cousins recently found each other after a genealogy search. (Courtesy of Velocity Paramount )

Kelley Dixon-Tealer knew her search for her roots was typical of many Black families in the United States.

She hit roadblocks researching her genealogy because so many families were torn apart during the horrors of slavery. But she felt a new urgency to know where she came from after her last grandparent died in 2018.

“My grandparents were near and dear to my heart, and I really wanted to keep that connection to them,” she said. “I thought that finding out more about my family tree would help to keep them alive in some way.”

She never imagined she’d be able to find out about her enslaved great-great-great-grandfather, and actually read his own words, in his own tidy handwriting that had been preserved for 155 years. Or that it would lead her to meet her distant cousins who live in Virginia.

“I’m just blown away,” Dixon-Tealer said, explaining that she learned her great-great-grandfather had been born into slavery in Virginia and was separated from his family when he was 6.

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Dixon-Tealer’s break came in 2018 when she and her mother, Marie Jenkins, who both live in Houston, decided to renew a genealogical quest they’d put on hold in 2005 at Ancestry.

“We both felt like it was time to get started again,” said Dixon-Tealer, 48.

Dixon-Tealer found a list of names to look into that she hadn’t seen during her previous searches, she said. She slowly continued her research, and then, in April 2021, she received a surprising offer from Ancestry:

Would she like some help looking into her family’s backstory?

Because she’d opted to make her page public, genealogists could see what she was working on and had picked up on the challenges she faced, said Dixon-Tealer.

She began working with Ancestry genealogist Nicka Sewell-Smith, who took up the search using newspaper and government records.

“We wanted to help Kelley and her mom to connect the dots,” Sewell-Smith said.

Sewell-Smith found some answers in records from the Freedmen’s Bureau — an agency established by Congress after the Civil War to help formerly enslaved people reunite with their families, purchase land and legalize marriages.

“The Freedmen’s Bureau is such an alluring collection of records — it’s often the very first time we hear from the individuals themselves who were sold as property,” said Sewell-Smith.

Although the bureau was dismantled in 1872, the records were stored at the National Archives and put on microfilm in the 1970s. More than 3.5 million records are now available free online, she said.

Incredibly, two letters written by her great-great-great-grandfather Hawkins Wilson in 1867 were among those records. They were penned two years after slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment.

“I was ecstatic when I got the news,” said Dixon-Tealer, explaining both the thrill and heartbreak of peeking into his life.

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Wilson had been born into slavery in 1837 in Mecklenburg County, Va., and was taken from his family and sold at age 6 to pay a debt, she said. He died in April 1906.

The letters that Sewell-Smith found in the Freedmen’s Bureau archives helped fill in some of her family mystery, Dixon-Tealer said, adding that they helped her feel close to Wilson. He was a seemingly compassionate and determined man who wanted nothing more than to be reunited with his family, she said.

Both letters were written in refined cursive and were dated May 11, 1867. Wilson had mailed them to the Freedmen’s Bureau from his home in Galveston, Tex.

“Dear Sir, I am anxious to learn about my sisters, from whom I have been separated many years,” read the first letter. “I have not 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.”

“My name is Hawkins Wilson and I am their brother, who was sold at Sheriff’s sale and used to belong to Jackson Talley and was bought by M. Wright, Boydtown, C.H.,” Wilson added. “You will please send the enclosed letter to my sister Jane, or some of her family, if she is dead.”

Wilson’s second letter was filled with hope and longing for the sister he was torn from as a boy.

“Dear Sister Jane, your little brother Hawkins is trying to find out where you are and where his poor old mother is,” he wrote.

“Let me know and I will come to you,” he continued. “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.”

Wilson wrote about his wife, Martha White, whom he married in March 1867, and he described his job as a church officer and caretaker, earning $18 a month.

But Dixon-Tealer said she and her mother were especially touched by the memories he included about the family he’d been forced to leave behind.

“Please send me some of Julia’s hair whom I left as a baby in the cradle when I was torn away from you,” Wilson wrote. “I know that she is a young lady now, but I hope she will not deny her affectionate uncle this request, seeing she was an infant in the cradle when he saw her last.”

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“It was so sad to think of what he’d gone through,” said Dixon-Tealer. “But when you read his letters, you can also see his compassion. I saw a Christian man who chose not to be a victim. He had earned respect.”

“You can sense that he was family-oriented, just like my father was,” added Jenkins, 73. “You can tell he was a good person who never forgot about the importance of family.”

She and her daughter said they hope to see the original copies of Wilson’s letters someday at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

The women and Sewell-Smith participated in an Ancestry documentary about Dixon-Tealer’s search for her family, “A Dream Delivered.”

Dixon-Tealer said they are grateful to have found some new family connections.

The search led them to some distant cousins, Valarie Gray Holmes and Linda Epps Parker, who had been asking some of the same genealogy questions as Dixon-Tealer.

“Until now, I didn’t have a lot of family stories and history,” said Dixon-Tealer. “I always wondered, ‘Where were those relationships?' ”

The four women met for the first time in North Carolina in mid-April. Holmes and Parker are descendants of Hawkins Wilson’s uncle, Jim Langley.

“All of us had been asking, ‘Who are our ancestors?’ ” said Parker, 68, who lives in Alexandria, Va. “It was really rewarding to meet Kelley and Marie and realize that we’re all family.”

Dixon-Tealer said the discovery of the letters and new relatives has enticed her to do more research in the hope of adding new names to her family history.

“I spent my Juneteenth looking at my new family tree,” she said. “To touch those names made me feel like I’d won the lottery.”

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