In the United States, it has been a challenge for Black Americans to connect with their family history and trace their lineage due to slavery. Emblematic of that struggle is Hawkins Wilson, a man born into slavery and torn from his family as a young boy. After his emancipation, Wilson would migrate to Galveston, Texas where he would speak at the first Juneteenth celebration as a free man, minister and leader of men. Resilient in the face of loss, Wilson wrote letters to the newly formed Freedmen’s Bureau in hopes of reuniting with his loved ones, but they were never delivered. Until now.
Ancestry’s genealogical tools and robust collection of historical records give us the ability to rekindle those lost connections. By finally delivering Wilson’s letters to his modern-day descendants, Ancestry not only helped complete a single family’s story, but we transformed their journey into A Dream Delivered: The Lost Letters of Hawkins Wilson, a shared reflection on our nation’s history in the form of a documentary film.
Following Hawkins Wilson seeing his dream delivered more than 150 years later gave media—and the public—an authentic way to honor the legacy of Juneteenth and commemorate its one-year anniversary as an official federal holiday. By showcasing slavery’s long-lasting impact on family history and identity, we sparked interest in Black American history during a culturally relevant timeframe, by generating widespread, top-tier national media coverage, extensive social conversation, and robust engagement with the film itself—further cementing Ancestry as the global leader in family history.
In releasing the largest digitized and searchable collection of Freedmen’s Bureau and Freedman's Bank records, we unearthed many stories like Hawkins Wilson but we knew what we had to do: find his descendants, reunite them and deliver his letters once and for all.
With the help of historian Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and genealogist Nicka Sewell-Smith, we traced Wilson’s lineage and revealed his remarkable story to his modern-day family members.
As we pieced together their ancestor’s life through his letters and Ancestry products and tools including AncestryDNA, census and newspaper records, and public family trees, they learned not only about the past but also learned about themselves, completing a personal identity that can only come through a more complete family history.
We filmed the descendants’ journey to act as inspiration for others, producing a documentary hosted by Anthony Anderson that allowed audiences to discover Hawkins Wilson’s incredible story alongside his family members. By joining their journey, audiences were able to empathize with the struggle many Black Americans face when trying to uncover their family history, while simultaneously discovering Ancestry’s unparalleled ability to help bring families together and learn more about their roots.
For the film release, the Juneteenth holiday provided a pivotal moment for greater understanding of Black history, including the knowledge gaps that exist within the Black community as it pertains to tracing their lineage. To honor the Juneteenth legacy and educate the Black community on Ancestry’s genealogical tools, our team executed the following strategy surrounding the production and release of the documentary film:
Identification of spokespeople with strong connections to the community and production partners with a commitment to diverse storytelling to ensure the story was told credibly and authentically.
An exclusive with a top-tier outlet with both expansive audience reach and wide appeal inside and outside the Black community.
Widespread embargo outreach to top African American, lifestyle, historical and entertainment broadcast and print media.
Collaborations with influencers spanning lifestyle, family and entertainment to support in driving awareness of the film through social content.
A press release and media alert to secure additional organic coverage.
With an incredibly powerful and timely story in hand, we secured an exclusive with USA Today for their Juneteenth feature report that launched our campaign coverage. Prior to the embargo lifting, we conducted meticulous outreach to top-tier media outlets with the offer of select interviews with Anthony Anderson, renowned cultural historian Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., genealogist Nicka Sewell-Smith, and the inspiring descendants of Hawkins Wilson.
One week prior to the film being released, we lifted the embargo and created a groundswell of coverage – nearly 1 billion impressions before the film was released on June 17. We strategically timed our cadence of stories (1 to 3 published/live each day leading up to film launch and the days following) to build a crescendo of coverage, which grew through the life of this campaign.
A Dream Delivered: The Lost Letters of Hawkins Wilson resonated with Americans with 1.3 million film views to date.
In addition, our outreach efforts resulted in coverage across top-tier broadcast morning shows, podcasts, general news, entertainment, Black culture and lifestyle outlets.
1.8 billion media impressions, surpassing program KPIs by over 300%.
3 Broadcast features on national morning shows. ABC’s Good Morning America even flew to Houston and captured the descendants’ second time meeting in person.
USA Today’s feature piece was syndicated to 25 outlets across the country. This feature was also one of the primary stories in their special print edition on Juneteenth.
2.5 million influencer impressions through our partnership with Black-ish actress and activist Yara Shahidi (7.3 million followers) and her mom Keri Shahidi (302,000 followers) to create content on Instagram sharing their feelings on the film and how it inspired them to learn more about their family.
8X month-over-month site traffic to Ancestry’s Black Family History landing page.
136 million+ paid media impressions.
50 million+ earned social impressions.
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