This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Women’s vision preserves accomplishments

Uncrowned Queens brings to light stories of African-American women

Published: October 12, 2006

Reporter Staff Writer

The term "uncrowned queen" is recognized by many in Buffalo and Western New York as describing an African-American woman of great strength and determination, whose life and actions have made a positive impact in the community.


If not for the vision of Peggy Brooks-Bertram (left) and Barbara Seals Nevergold, the accomplishments of hundreds of African-American women would have been forever lost. The two founded the Uncrowned Queens Institute that preserves these women’s stories.

But if not for the vision of two longtime members of the UB community, these women's accomplishments might have been forever lost.

Peggy Brooks-Bertram and Barbara Seals Nevergold founded the Uncrowned Queens Institute for Research and Education on Women in 1999 to bring these women's stories to light, and in August the pair was honored with the Keeper of the Flame Award from the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls in recognition of their continued commitment to the institute

The two now dedicate most of their time to the preservation and celebration of the stories of these African-American women. Their work has been helped, says Brooks-Bertram, by a formal partnership that recently was established between UB and the Uncrowned Queens Institute that provides the institute with greater access to campus resources, as well as office space in Allen Hall on the South Campus.

"This is a very unique partnership between the university and a [nonprofit] corporation," she says. "President [John B.] Simpson decided that what we were doing was quite laudable and brought us on board."

However, the partnership between Brooks-Bertram and Nevergold, both senior education specialists in the Office of the Vice President for External Affairs, traces back more than a decade before Uncrowned Queens. Both are longtime collaborators on projects to benefit the community.

The two recall that after their introduction, it took little time to discover their shared interest in education. Soon the friends co-founded Concerned Parents and Citizens for Quality Education, and Brooks-Bertram notes they became a bit infamous for their lobbying to remove five officials from the Buffalo Board of Education. But Nevergold explains that the organization's foremost purpose in the 10 years she and Brooks-Bertram were its co-chairs was to advocate for educational issues and persuade school district officials to respect the role of parents in their children's education.

"I think in working together we found that we each bring a different perspective and a different strength to the collaboration that makes it work," she says.

A native of Baltimore, Md., who moved to Buffalo in 1986 after a career in public health, Brooks-Bertram says she brought a newcomer's perspective to the pair's work as parent advocates. Nevergold came to Buffalo from Louisiana as a child in late 1940s.

A graduate of the Buffalo Public Schools, Nevergold returned to the city schools to teach French during the 1960s through the 1980s. She also has served as CEO of Planned Parenthood of Buffalo and Erie County, and most recently as director of student support services in the Educational Opportunity Center at UB. She holds bachelor's and master's degrees in French education from Buffalo State College and UB, as well as master's and doctoral degrees in counseling education from UB.

Brooks-Bertram holds a bachelor's degree in political science from Goucher College and master's and doctoral degrees in public health from The Johns Hopkins University. She earned a second doctorate in American studies from UB in 2002. Her past positions at UB include faculty associate in the Office of the Vice President for Public Service and Urban Affairs, assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies and a research assistant in the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine.

"One of the things that sustains us is the individual projects we do in addition to Uncrowned Queens," notes Nevergold, who is a family historian and also conducts historical research on Andrew J. Smitherman, founder of the activist newspaper Buffalo Star.

Brooks-Bertram has authored several book chapters on public health issues related to black women, and also is a poet, dramatist and biographical researcher on turn-of-the-century historian and poet Drusilla Dunjee Houston. Her biography on Houston will be published by University of Oklahoma Press.

Their shared interest in the lost stories of African-American women and history is the "common thread" that sparked the creation of the Uncrowned Queens Institute, says Nevergold. The historical information unearthed as part of their research is "both an enlightenment and a personal growth and exploration," she notes.

In fact, Uncrowned Queens' debut as a multistate project—through its official inclusion in the State of Oklahoma's 2007 centennial celebration—traces its roots to their scholarship on Houston, an Oklahoma native, and Smitherman, who left the state after falsely being implicated in the Tulsa race riot of 1921.

Uncrowned Queens was born as a project under the Women's Pavilion Pan-American 2001—an organization that funded initiatives to commemorate the centennial celebration of the 1901 Pan-Am Exhibition in Buffalo—but outlasted the other centennial projects to amass hundreds of biographies, as well as publish three books through its own start-up publishing company.

Moreover, says Brooks-Bertram, Uncrowned Queens is working in partnership with WNED-AM to produce the "Uncrowned Queens: Voices from the Community" radio program for National Public Radio. The first of more than 100 interviews will be recorded the first week of November, with the first local broadcast expected in May 2007. The project is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. (For more details, click here.)

In addition, Uncrowned Kings, a companion project focusing on African-American men, is set to launch online and a major upgrade is planned for the Web site to enable users to upload biographies with less oversight.

Although UB's server has long hosted the Uncrowned Queens' Web site at http://www.buffalo .edu/uncrownedqueens, providing office space on South Campus represents a significant leap in support services.

"All of [these projects] create learning opportunities for students, and teaching and research opportunities for faculty," notes Brooks-Bertram. She says the ultimate goal is to educate others about the Uncrowned Queens model in order to spread similar projects to cities and ethnic communities nationwide.

"The thing that rings my chimes," she adds, "is that I get up every morning and have Uncrowned Queens to work on."

Nevergold lives in Buffalo with her husband, Paul. The couple has two adult children. Brooks-Bertram, the mother of two, is married to Dennis Bertram, director of the master of public health program in the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions.