Anthony Anderson Says Filming Ancestry Movie About Descendants of Enslaved Man Was 'Eye Opening'

·4 min read
Anthony Anderson hosts new Ancestry film
Anthony Anderson hosts new Ancestry film

Ancestry Anthony Anderson narrates the story of one Black family's emotional journey of discovery as they read letters from a long-lost loved one in a new short film titled "A Dream Delivered: The Lost Letters of Hawkins Wilson." CREDIT: ANCESTRY

Tracing family history can offer invaluable perspective, but for many Black Americans, that process has been complicated by the United States' history of slavery and the record-keeping issues that followed.

Anthony Anderson helps tell the story of one Black family's emotional journey of discovery as they read letters from a long-lost loved one in a new short film titled A Dream Delivered: The Lost Letters of Hawkins Wilson, which premieres Saturday on Ancestry.com, ahead of Juneteenth on Sunday.

The black-ish alum, 51, tells PEOPLE that taking part in the project, from acclaimed director Rashidi Harper, was an awe-inspiring experience.

"It was eye opening to be able to sit back and watch someone's life, someone's story unfold right before their eyes, right before your own eyes," Anderson says.

"To see the joy and the satisfaction that it brought to these families," he adds, "was a really good thing to be a part of."

Hawkins Wilson's descendants meet for the first time
Hawkins Wilson's descendants meet for the first time

Ancestry Hawkins Wilson's descendants Linda Parker, left, and Valarie Gray Holmes, second from left, embrace and Kelley Dixon Tealer, right, and Marie Dixon-Jenkins, right, reuniting for the first time over 100 years later. CREDIT: ANCESTRY

A Dream Delivered follows professional genealogist Nicka Sewell-Smith as she and mother-daughter duo Kelley Dixon Tealer and Marie Dixon-Jenkins learn about their ancestor named Hawkins Wilson — a man freed from slavery following the Civil War in 1865 — through letters he once sent to the Freedmen's Bureau.

Wilson's letters were discovered among the more than 3.5 million recently digitized records from the Bureau, created by Congress in 1865 to manage "all matters relating to the refugees and freedmen and lands abandoned or seized during the Civil War," according to the U.S. National Archives.

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Though Wilson's letters never reached their intended readers, his descendents used them to paint a picture of their family tree. It was fulfilling to watch it happen in real time, Anderson tells PEOPLE.

"You're able to sit back and watch it happen for a family, and watch questions that they have asked or have been wanting to ask — watching those answers unfold in front of them, giving them a sense of fulfillment and completion," says Anderson.

Kelley Dixon Tealer and Marie Dixon-Jenkins talk with Nicka Sewell Smith
Kelley Dixon Tealer and Marie Dixon-Jenkins talk with Nicka Sewell Smith

Ancestry Kelley Dixon Tealer and Marie Dixon-Jenkins discuss their family history journey with Ancestry-genealogist Nicka Sewell Smith. CREDIT: ANCESTRY

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Anderson recently used Ancestry.com to trace his own family lineage, which he tells PEOPLE dates back to his great-great-grandmother in the mid-1800s. The process, he says, helped him learn things he never knew about his ancestors, including his great-great-grandmother's path from slavery to landownership.

"Just to learn that history about your family that you never knew [is great]," he explains, adding, "What Ancestry provided for me and my family are answers to that now."

Anthony Anderson hosts new Ancestry film
Anthony Anderson hosts new Ancestry film

Ancestry Anthony Anderson helps tell the story of one Black family's emotional journey of discovery as they read letters from a long-long relative in A Dream Delivered: The Lost Letters of Hawkins Wilson. CREDIT: ANCESTRY

Also appearing in the film is Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., 71, who hopes the film "can inspire an entire generation to explore what they didn't believe was possible," according to Ancestry's press release.

"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," Gates said.

"The more we uncover our history as a society," he added, "the more we can recognize our shared humanity."

RELATED: Family Discovers New Va. Home Was a Plantation Where Their Ancestors Were Enslaved: 'Heart-Wrenching'

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. appears in a new Ancestry film
Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. appears in a new Ancestry film

Ancestry Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. appears as a genealogy expert in the new film A Dream Delivered: The Lost Letters of Hawkins Wilson. CREDIT: ANCESTRY

Anderson hopes A Dream Delivered will inspire more people to bring their family story full circle, which he says offers a better sense of who one actually is.

He also hopes viewers will develop an understanding as to why some individuals "are drawn to certain things and certain places and certain people," adding, "You don't know that until you know the full story."

A Dream Delivered premieres Friday at Ancestry.com. The film will be available to stream via Paramount+, Pluto TV and the CBS News Digital Streaming Network beginning Sunday.