Release Date: March 5, 2001
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- African Americans in Western New York and beyond are coming together to pay homage to unheralded black women of the past 100 years, the unsung heroines whose legacy of self-determination speaks to a tradition of effecting change.
"Uncrowned Queens" -- a Web site dedicated to recognizing those unsung heroines -- spotlights the accomplishments of African-American women who live or have lived in the Buffalo area and have remained largely in the shadows over the course of a century, but who have in their own significant way contributed to the collective achievements of the community, and of black history.
The site was developed by Peggy Brooks-Bertram, an associate for faculty development and graduate fellowship programs in the Office of the Vice President for Public Service and Urban Affairs at the University at Buffalo, and Barbara Seals Nevergold, coordinator of student support services in UB's Educational Opportunity Center.
Its title is derived from a poem published in 1917 by Drusilla Dunjee Houston, "America's Uncrowned Queens."
"She really was speaking to the same kinds of issues that we're speaking to now -- that there are African-American women who are really toiling in the background, trying to make things right," said Brooks-Bertram, also an adjunct assistant professor in the UB Department of African American Studies.
"We decided there were hundreds of women in the African-American community who had done a lot of things over the past century, but hadn't been recognized for it," she added. "And we were especially interested in making sure we identified women who you didn't usually see getting accolades."
The project began to take shape more than a year ago when Nevergold answered a request to participate in the Women's Pavilion Pan American 2001 Inc., a Web organization serving as a hub for community projects celebrating the achievements of women in conjunction with the centennial of the Pan American Exposition of 1901. At the time, none of the organization's focus groups were dedicated solely to examining the achievements of minority women. Nevergold sought to fill that need.
"I thought about what could possibly be an activity that focused on the community," she recalled.
And thus, the pair began work on the project, developed under the auspices of the Women's Pavilion, and currently featuring the biographies of some 100 "uncrowned queens."
The ultimate goal for the site, http://wings.buffalo.edu/uncrownedqueens, is to cull the names of 1,901 women by the end of 2001.
Nevergold notes the importance of recognizing the accomplishments of African-American women who in the past were relegated to the background, their history obscured by events that sought to exclude -- or exploit -- their very existence.
"When Congress passed the act that established the Pan Am, the language said the purpose of the exposition was to showcase all of the accomplishments of mankind over the last 100 years…in all aspects -- arts, industry, education," she explained. "That promise wasn't fulfilled, as far as looking at groups of color.
"Our activity comes back to the original goal of the Pan Am -- here we are, here are the accomplishments, here are the contributions that this group of people has made to the community," she said.
The pair turned to community organizations -- namely the Afro American Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier, the Buffalo Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Buffalo Genealogical Society of the African Diaspora, Erie County Links Inc. and the Xi Epsilon Omega Chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. -- for nominations, while also coming up with their own slate of nominees.
"We're talking about women who were active back then, or were active in the community in the past 100 years," Nevergold said. "We were going back to women who were deceased and had left the collective memory. But there was someone who remembered."
She cites the example of the late Ann Montgomery, among the women featured on the site, whose career as a business owner began in the 1910s in Buffalo where her various enterprises flourished as part of Little Harlem. Eva M. Noles was the first black nurse to train in Buffalo, and went on to become director of nursing at what now is Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Also featured on the site, Noles remains an active member of the nursing community.
"There was a cadre of people who had done all kinds of things -- the community hair dresser who'd been dressing hair for 50 years, making all of us look lovely, but no one every gave her an outstanding achievement award," explained Brooks-Bertram. "Or the woman who was the baby sitter for everybody's child in the neighborhood, or the person who was the community historian. We have women like that."
Among the contemporary women whose contributions are more widely known in the community and whose are biographies are included are Al-Nisa Banks, Florence Baugh, Ellen E. Grant Bishop, Constance Eve, Rosa Gibson, Ernestine R. Green, Mary H. Gresham, Muriel A. Howard, Celeste Lawson, Rose Sconiers and Jan Peters.
Brooks-Bertram credits UB in helping to the project possible.
Nevergold said she and Brooks-Bertram would like to work with the Buffalo Board of Education in developing a curriculum to accompany the Web site. And this month, the pair will present "Uncrowned Queens" to the New York State Social Studies Association, which is holding a day-long seminar on the Pan Am.
Ultimately, the women hope the site will become an interactive community resource. Individuals would be able to add the stories of women who are important to them. And the pair intends to include the stories of women in other underrepresented groups -- not just blacks.
"Long after we're finished, the community can step forward and start to identify the next wave of people," Brooks-Bertram said. "It's consistent with our attempt to marry the history of a culture of people with the use of technology to explore it.
"We think it's an extraordinary educational opportunity for people to say that although African Americans may have been in the shadows in 1901, this project, this opportunity, belatedly fulfills the original mission on the Pan American Exposition, which was to talk about the contributions of all people."