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The people's historians From the prominent to the previously unknown, the lives and times of Buffalo's African-American women are finally told, thanks to the grass-roots research of the "Uncrowned Queens" project

It's the third-floor room they're after.

Whether it's a real space, or a symbolic one, Barbara Seals Nevergold and Peggy Brooks-Bertram always feel the thrill of discovery when the women they are interviewing get up from the kitchen table.

"When they go up to the third floor, they don't come down empty-handed," said Brooks-Bertram.

In their hands, the women carry letters, photos, certificates, diaries, all telling the story of their lives.

What Nevergold and Brooks-Bertram have done for the past several years is to bring those lives out of the attic and into the light through their project "Uncrowned Queens."

Now, there exists a compilation of biographies of these African-American women, whose lives and accomplishments had too long gone unnoticed.

Included are household names -- Marian Bass, a retired captain in the Buffalo Police Department; Muriel Howard, first female president of Buffalo State College and Mary Talbert, civil rights advocate. But the "Uncrowned Queens" effort also documents countless others, previously unknown beyond their neighborhoods, churches, family and friends.

Their stories are given equal importance in the three "Uncrowned Queens" books, and there's a Web site (www.buffalo.edu/uncrownedqueens) as the individual stories continue to accumulate. The research is now done through the Uncrowned Queens Institute, which resides at the University at Buffalo.

"Uncrowned Queens" has even become part of the local lexicon.

"We've become the first ones to recognize some women, and also the last word," said Brooks-Bertram, referring to the mention, now used in obituaries.

With "Uncrowned Queens" firmly entrenched in Buffalo, it appears that the project is on the threshold of expanding nationally:

*They've been invited to submit a proposal to the Smithsonian Institution's planned National Museum of African American History and Culture.

On May 2, they'll present a workshop on "Uncrowned Queens" at the Women's Caucus of the National Conference of Black Mayors in Baton Rouge.

*"Uncrowned Queens" is the only out-of-state program that's part of the 2007 Oklahoma Centennial. "We are pleased that the project will reach out to communities of all sizes and that it will create archives that will be invaluable to students, scholars and the public," according to the Centennial Commemoration Commission.

*A weekly, one-hour radio show "Uncrowned Queens: Voices from the the Community," is set to air soon, first locally on WNED and later on National Public Radio.

*And, responding to numerous requests, they will launch a local "Uncrowned Kings" project on April 28.

"Our vision is limitless, but I'm not sure our energy is," said Nevergold.

This "people's history" began when they worked on the 100th anniversary of the Pan-American Exposition in 2001, uncovering the myriad contributions of African-Americans.

"Once the Pan-Am began to sunset, there were plans to put everything into a time capsule," said Brooks-Bertram, who said they couldn't bear the prospect of sealing away the history they'd brought to light.

That marked the beginning of a project that seems to have no bounds: they've talked to people from Siberia and Tibet, interested in tailoring the concept for their countries. They know that it's being used as dissertation material and they continually get e-mails from around the world.

Each encounter becomes not only a history lesson, they said, but a reminder of how inter-connected people and events are.

For example, the invitation from the Smithsonian came about when John Franklin, the associate curator, called Brooks-Bertram upon learning that his grandmother was an "uncrowned queen," they said.

"He said he was stunned to see her there," she said. When he mentioned that he was traveling around the country, seeking ideas for the new museum, the effervescent Brooks-Bertram didn't hesitate: "I said 'we'll make a proposal.' " Their proposal involves having large panels with photos and text to highlight women, along with a computer laboratory that would allow visitors to chronicle their life stories.

Their connection to Oklahoma came while Brooks-Bertram researched the life of Drusilla Dunjee Houston, who wrote the poem "America's Uncrowned Queens," the inspiration for their name.

While she was in Oklahoma, Brooks-Bertram became convinced that "Uncrowned Queens" could -- and should -- be replicated there. "But, how do we, sitting in Buffalo, engage the entire state of Oklahoma?" she wondered.

Before long, they figured it out -- with the help of local historians, the tourism office, the governor's office, church groups, and the Internet. It was a big boost to be featured on the front cover of an employee benefits brochure that went to 39,000 people.

"It's an idea that resonates with people," said Nevergold.

In Oklahoma, they also uncovered information about the Rosenwald Schools, named for Julius Rosenwald, who donated money, enhanced by contributions from women, to build 5,300 schools for rural, poor, black children.

Among them is Rosenwald Hall, a school in Lima, Okla., which had fallen into disrepair. Working with Lima's mayor, Nevergold and Brooks-Bertram helped to secure money to preserve the school, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places. "When we walk out of Oklahoma, there will be a building there," said Nevergold, who was once a French teacher.

Mostly, though, they want to preserve memories -- and sometimes they work against great odds.

"We've gotten phone calls that Mrs. So and So is going into a nursing home and we should get over to the house, quickly," said Brooks-Bertram. After viewing one such scene, where workmen left footprints on photos as they carried out garbage bags of belongings, she wrote a tribute called "Uncrowned Queens of the Trash Dump."

Even their subjects don't always appreciate the wealth of material that their lives contain, they say.

"Over and over, people have told us that nobody's ever been interested in them," said Brooks-Bertram. "And I say: 'Let's change that.' "

e-mail: pvoell@buffnews.com

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