“My grandparents were near and dear to my heart, and I really wanted to keep that connection with them,” she said. “I thought knowing more about my family tree would help keep them alive somehow.”
She never imagined that she could discover her enslaved great-great-great-grandfather and read his own words, in his own neat handwriting that had been preserved for 155 years. Or that it would lead him to meet his distant cousins who live in Virginia.
“I’m just blown away,” Dixon-Tealer said, explaining that she learned her great-great-grandfather was born into slavery in Virginia and separated from his family when he was 6.
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Dixon-Tealer’s breakup came in 2018 when she and her mother, Marie Jenkins, who both live in Houston, decided to resume a genealogy quest they had put on hold in 2005 at Ancestry.
“We both felt it was time to start over,” said Dixon-Tealer, 48.
Dixon-Tealer found a list of names to review that she hadn’t seen in her previous searches, she said. She slowly continued her search, and then, in April 2021, she received a surprising offer from Ancestry:
Would she like some help finding out her family history?
Because she chose to make her page public, genealogists could see what she was working on and addressed the challenges she faced, Dixon-Tealer said.
She began working with Ancestry genealogist Nicka Sewell-Smith, who undertook the research using newspapers and government records.
“We wanted to help Kelley and her mom connect the dots,” Sewell-Smith said.
Sewell-Smith found answers in the files of the Freedmen’s Bureau – an agency created by Congress after the Civil War to help former slaves reunite with their families, buy land and legalize marriages.
“The Freedmen’s Bureau is such an alluring collection of records – it’s often the very first time we hear about the individuals themselves who have been sold as property,” Sewell-Smith said.
Although the office was dismantled in 1872, the records were kept in the National Archives and put on microfilm in the 1970s. More than 3.5 million records are now freely available online, she said.
Incredibly, two letters written by his great-great-great-grandfather Hawkins Wilson in 1867 were among those documents. They were penned two years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery.
“I was thrilled when I heard the news,” Dixon-Tealer said, explaining both the thrill and the heartbreak of taking a peek into her life.
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Wilson was born into slavery in 1837 in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, and was taken from his family and sold at age 6 to pay a debt, she said. He died in April 1906.
The letters Sewell-Smith found in the Freedmen’s Bureau archives helped solve part of his 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 fancy cursive and were dated May 11, 1867. Wilson had mailed them to the Freedmen’s Bureau from his home in Galveston, Texas.
“Dear Sir, I am eager to know more about my sisters, from whom I have been separated for many years,” reads the first letter. “I haven’t heard from them since I left Virginia twenty-four years ago. I hope they are still alive and I can’t wait to see how they are.
“My name is Hawkins Wilson and I am their brother, who was sold at the Sheriff’s Sale and was owned by Jackson Talley and purchased by Mr. Wright, Boydtown, CH,” Wilson added. “Please send the enclosed letter to my sister Jane, or certain members of her family, if she is deceased.”
Wilson’s second letter was filled with hope and longing for the sister he had been taken from as a child.
“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’ll come to you,” he continued. “I should never forget the bag of cookies you baked for me the last night I spent with you.” The advice you gave me to meet you in heaven has never left my mind.
Wilson wrote of his wife, Martha White, whom he married in March 1867, and he described his work as a church officer and caretaker, earning $18 a month.
But Dixon-Tealer said she and her mother were particularly touched by the memories he included of the family he was forced to leave behind.
“Please send me some hair from Julia that I left baby in the crib when I was ripped from you,” Wilson wrote. “I know she’s a young lady now, but I hope she won’t refuse this request to her loving uncle, seeing as she was a baby in the cradle the last time he saw her.”
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“It was so sad to think about what he went through,” Dixon-Tealer said. “But when you read his letters, you can also see his compassion. I saw a Christian who chose not to be a victim. He had earned respect.
“You can feel he was family oriented, just like my dad was,” added Jenkins, 73. “You can tell he was a good person who never forgot the importance of family.”
She and her daughter said they hope to one day see the original copies of Wilson’s letters in the National Archives in Washington, DC.
The women and Sewell-Smith starred in an Ancestry documentary about Dixon-Tealer’s search for her family, “A Dream Delivered.”
Dixon-Tealer said they were grateful to have found new family ties.
The search led them to distant cousins, Valarie Gray Holmes and Linda Epps Parker, who had asked some of the same genealogy questions as Dixon-Tealer.
“Until now, I didn’t have a lot of family stuff and history,” Dixon-Tealer said. “I always wondered, ‘Where were those relationships?’ ”
The four women first met in North Carolina in mid-April. Holmes and Parker are descendants of Hawkins Wilson’s uncle, Jim Langley.
“We all asked ourselves: ‘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 finding the letters and new relatives prompted her to do more research in hopes of adding new names to her family history.
“I spent my Juneteenth looking at my new family tree,” she said. “Touching those names made me feel like I won the lottery.”
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