ABC7 Unite: Museum founded by 2 women displays historical Black contributions in NJ

NEW YORK (WABC) -- For many African-Americans who are descendants of slaves, their lineage is often an enigma.

Now, two New Jersey women have unearthed a bit of history some never knew existed, and their investigation took them down a winding path of their own ancestry.

"African-American history is American history," SSAAM Executive Director Caroline Katmann said.

They say you can't really know where you're going unless you know where you have been.

"We do need to know, 'where did we come from, and how did we get here,'" Co-founder of SSAAM Elaine Buck said.

Questions that taunted Co-founder Beverly Mills and Buck to investigate their own family history, opening a gateway to stories they say were hidden for far too long.

They're now on display at the ladies' newly-created Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum in Somerset County. It's the former Mount Zion A.M.E. Church.

One story found belongs to William Stives.

"He was the first African-American resident to come to this community," Mills said.

A glimpse of his life was detailed in a military discharge document signed by George Washington.

"He also received the badge of merit, which is extraordinary," Mills said. "You know because you're talking about an African-American man who received the honor."

Stives' life, among others in the museum, unearthed almost 16 years ago.

"It's an ongoing odyssey for us," Mills said.

As Mills and Buck first set out to make the nearby Stoutsburg Cemetery the official burial place for Stives, they sit on the board of the historically black burial ground where many of their own ancestors were laid to rest. The ground is rich with stories the ladies hope don't melt away.

Mills and Buck co-authored the book called "If These Stones Could Talk" which highlights their discoveries.

"We don't want this information to die when we die," Buck said.

Mills and Buck's efforts to unveil black contributions revealed some African-Americans voted in the Garden State before the adoption of the 15th Amendment in 1870.

"Not only was New Jersey a slave state, but it was also the last northern state to abolish slavery," Mills said.

Katmann said it's through awareness of the history and honoring the history that can really move the country forward and become a socially just society.

The Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum is expanding, purchasing land next to the building in hopes of building an education and exhibit center.

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