Seminar helps black residents trace ancestral history

Photos by Javon Ross
Janice Cross-Gilyard, president of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society-New Jersey Chapter, seated center, gives a genealogy seminar to Maplewood residents at the DeHart Center. 

ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — The Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society-New Jersey Chapter hosted a genealogy seminar to help black residents trace their ancestral history on Sunday, Feb. 12, at the DeHart Center. Janice Cross-Gilyard, now in her second term as president of the AAHGS-NJ, has made it her life’s work to help people trace their ancestral origins and served as host. Gilyard has been researching her family’s roots for 26 years and has documented her history as far back as 1720.

The AAHGS-NJ, a non-profit focused on helping black people research and gain knowledge on their individual ancestral history, hosted a similar event on Sunday, Feb. 5, at the Durand-Hedden House, a historical museum in Maplewood with which it partnered. Barbara Valazquez hosted that event.
For Gilyard, it was a very personal reason that drew her into exploring people’s roots and ancestral origin.

“I was challenged by my husband to find out my family history,” Gilyard told the News-Record in a recent interview. “I did not know who my great grandparents were, so from that point on, I was on a mission, because no one had done any research on my family.”
Gilyard faced initial setbacks in her work to trace her family lineage, which is part of the reason she now shares her knowledge with others.

Maplewood residents watch as Cross-Gilyard presents her seminar on tracing their roots. Below left, Maplewood residents sit rapt as they watch the seminar being presented by Cross-Gilyard. Below right, Cross-Gilyard presents slides to those in attendance at her seminar explaining how to best trace their genealogical roots.

“Getting past the 1870 Census initially was difficult,” Gilyard said. “Enslaved people were not listed by name, only by age and race.”
Through her work hosting multiple seminars across New Jersey and being invited to multiple conferences throughout the United States, Gilyard believes she has helped hundreds of people uncover the stories of their ancestors.

“Through my work with RootsTech, a family search conference held in Utah, I would say I have helped over 1,000 people who attended the conferences,” Gilyard said. “The conferences are also recorded and posted on YouTube, which have been viewed by thousands of people. So, I would say that I have helped well over 1,000 people in my 25 years.”

Gilyard praised the work she is doing right now.
“It is very exciting, emotional, moving and spiritual,” she said, “because you are helping people trace back their heritage, but you can also find out that you’re related to someone that you’re talking to.”
In addition, Cherekana Feliciano, vice president of AAHGS-NJ, spoke on how far this work can go to help people now and in the future.

“The paper trail will have limitations at times,” Feliciano told the News-Record. “But where the paper trail ends, the DNA can help supplement, so there are really no limitations based on the individual.”
Feliciano also spoke on how this work gives purpose and hope to herself and others.
“This work is truly inspiring. It gives myself and others a sense of purpose,” Feliciano said. “It is also very grounding work; I would love to dedicate my time to helping with family research.”

Feliciano wants to help people in forensic genealogy to reach a legal conclusion to their ancestral search.
“Forensic genealogy would have a legal outcome that could be reached from the research done and help preserve that history, which is what our non-profit organization is all about,” Feliciano said.”
Feliciano also discussed the community aspect of the organization and how this emotional work helps to build and maintain a community.

“It is also a great way to be with like-minded people,” Feliciano said. “We give each other tips, we have presenters and (question and answer seminars). It is a social event, as much as it is an organization. And it is nice to be with like-minded people who support each other.”

Antoine Green, a member of the board of trustees of the South Orange-Maplewood Coalition on Race, spoke about what his work looks like and what the future holds for the coalition.

“I have been doing this work for three years. We do events based on race and culture,” Green told the News-Record. “We want to coordinate with our community to do events for the Asian community, for women’s issues and for anything that has to do with injustice. We want to be a voice for others and bring the community together.”