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Crowns of glory The joyous Easter holiday brings out the best in hats among the African-American community's church women

On Easter, a day of praise and new beginnings in the religious calendar, African-American churches will be bursting with exuberance, from the choir's high notes to the message of hope from the preacher to the dazzling hats on the ladies in the pews.

"Black women and their hats is an incredible tradition, and the church hat is an extraordinary hat," says Dr. Peggy Brooks-Bertram, co-founder with Dr. Barbara A. Seals-Nevergold of the Uncrowned Queens Institute for Research and Education on Women.

Bertram says hat-wearing has roots in ancient African history, where headgear demonstrated a person's rank in society and her connection with the gods. Ancient headgear could be decorated with the scarab beetle, images of powerful animals, or a single feather evoking the truth and purity of the Egyptian goddess Maat.

From these hats, worn to praise the deity or signify membership, a thriving tradition has sprung, and it shines its brightest at Easter.

"When you go to church, a woman adorns herself with the crown of glory, and the crown of glory is her hat," says Zandra Lewis, right, first lady of Loguen Memorial AME Zion Church, where her husband, the Rev. James A. Lewis III, is pastor.

Mrs. Lewis doesn't just wear hats, she creates them in her home business, Azariah's. Wearing a lilac, rhinestone-accented broad-brimmed upswing hat from designer Jack McConnell, she says, "The question is, how will we present ourselves to God? We want to look our best, and that includes a hat."

"A church hat is different from a street hat, a winter hat, a cap," says Dr. Bertram. "The church hat, in all of its glory, is definitely a crown."

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Sharon Stenhouse, first lady of Bethel AME Church, where her husband, the Rev. Richard A. Stenhouse, is pastor.

Hat: A vibrant purple circular hat made of pointed petal shapes, with the petals forming flowers dotted with rhinestones, with net accents.

"I bought this hat at a conference in Philadelphia. I like the fullness, and I like the way it covers your whole head, and I like the rhinestones. And you can wear it [with the flowers] in the back, on the side, however. I've always been a lover of hats."

She sits third pew on the right during services, and when her husband preaches, "I encourage him with a nod of my head, a smile every now and then. I grew up wearing hats -- my mother did, my aunts. You never went to church bareheaded. We do today, but never on Easter."

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Ida Hicks attends St. Luke's AME Zion Church, where the pastor is the Rev. Dr. Robert C. Graham.

Hat: A black tulle beret with a sequined brow band, pleated top and a pouf and bit of netting, designed by Jack McConnell.

"I have worn church hats all through my adult life, I've had this hat for a short while -- I believe I got it in North Carolina. The pouf can be worn on the front, back or side. Women have gotten brave with that."

She likes the combination of black and red. "Some Sundays when people don't even know what each other are wearing, they show up with black and red. They say, 'It just looks good today!' This hat could be worn to dinner, or for any occasion. It's kind of fancied up."

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Cynthia Barber also attends St. Luke AME Zion Church.

Hat: A coral straw hat with a deep, asymmetrical brim accented with tangerine straw lines edged with rhinestones.

"I grew up in a family where all the women wore hats, the gloves, the purses, everything matched. When you put on a hat, it makes you feel good, and you're going into the sanctuary, and a woman's head should be covered, you can go back to the Old Testament. It makes you feel like a queen, like Queen Elizabeth.

"You dress up in your best to go praise God, because God gives you the best. I love the coral color, and this hat is not overbearing but nicely made -- and it won't block anyone's view in church."

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Sharon Shelton attends Friendship Baptist Church, where the pastor is Rev. Daris Dixon-Clark.

Hat: A broad-brimmed, pleated silver hat accented with curled flower and feather shapes, designed by Mr. John Lee.

Her mother, Joyce Shelton, operates Joyce's Millinery, and originally sold this hat to Sharon's aunt, Patricia Hargrave, who passed away in mid-February. "My aunt got it from my mother, and when I saw it, I thought, 'How did you get that hat before me?' She wore it one time. Now I wear this hat in memory of her.

"This is for God. I present myself in the best way that I know how. I don't come to him in any kind of fashion, but when I am fully dressed, he says to me, 'Look at my daughter today!' We give God all the honor, all the glory, and all the praise."

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Elizabeth Morris, who attends Zion Missionary Baptist Church, where the pastor is the Rev. Robert E. Baines Sr.

Hat: A grape colored wide-brimmed hat with gold embroidery.

"My pastor's sister, Florida Chestnut, sells hats, and I bought this from her. The color of this one attracted me. I tried it on, and said it would go with a lot of things.

"I have been wearing church hats my whole life. Even going to work, I would wear a hat every day, and the ladies I worked with would say, 'Liz loves a hat!' I like the wider brim. I think it's very important to dress up, when we go to church we should look our best. When we go out to dinner or a nightclub, we will look our best. Well, we need to give God our best because he takes us everywhere. We need to look up to him and give him the glory."

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Mary Myles-Winters belongs to Zion Missionary Baptist Church, where the pastor is the Rev. Robert E. Baines Sr.

Hat: This two-toned straw hat has a bone-colored base and a taupe curl and a silk flower in the back. It was made by Thomasena Colvin, who made hats and other accessories from 1973 until she passed away in 2002.

"I saw a hat like this in a magazine, and I took the picture to her. She improvised a little bit, there were some things she couldn't get exactly the way they were, but I was very happy with it.

"My mother wore hats, too. She had a hat for every outfit, and she had a hatbox for every hat. You do see a lot of women in our church who wear some really unique hats and I compliment the other ladies on what they're wearing. It's not a competition, it's not really even about fashion. It's about showing respect by looking your best for church."

e-mail: aneville@buffnews.com

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