WASHINGTON -- Viewed from their balconies, the pews in traditional black churches looked like waves of polished wood curving down to the pulpit and, through decades of Sundays, the crests were topped by graceful rows of women's hats.
Before the sea change of the 1960s, it was much more common for women to cover their heads in congregations of all kinds. Nevertheless, visitors would have to have been blind not to see that there was more to the hats in black churches than mere fashion.
"This is part of part of a distinction between the work-day world and that whole Sunday-go-to-meeting tradition," said Gail S. Lowe, curator and principal researcher for a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit on African-American faith. "If your whole week was ruled by uniforms and aprons and work clothes and boots, then you kept one good suit and you kept one really nice dress.
"And if the culture says that ladies are supposed to cover their heads, and the culture certainly said that the Bible said you were supposed to do that, then that meant you needed a hat. And if you needed a hat and it was Sunday, then you needed a SUNDAY hat. So the hats became more and more elaborate, to say the least."
On one level, this symbolized reverence for God, said Lowe. It also displayed respect for the church and for the authority of elders. But there was one more level to this tradition: a hunger for beauty and for self-respect in the generations leading up to the Civil Rights Movement.
A display of Sunday hats is merely one detail in the mosaic of this latest offering by the Smithsonian's Center for African American History and Culture. However, similar themes of tradition and change appear throughout the aisles of the exhibit, which is entitled "Speak to my Heart: Communities of Faith and Contemporary African American Life." It will remain open through the spring of 2000 and the museum plans a traveling version of the exhibition.
One of the most striking items is a set of glass-and-brass doors from Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in Houston -- doors that had once served as the entrance to a segregated movie theater. Another display features bricks and a burned lamppost from First Baptist in Centralia, Va., one of several churches hit by arsonists in the 1990s.
But most of the museum cases feature more subtle signs of what has changed and what has stayed the same -- from the formal white gloves on a statue of a deaconess to the flowing robes of liturgical dancers and female pastors. "Speak To My Heart" also covers a wide range of religious traditions, including the worship and work of Muslims, Black Hebrews and others with African roots.
While black-church life has certainly changed in recent decades, it's impossible to predict which changes are permanent and which traditions will simply evolve into new forms, said Lowe. The key is that black Americans are, like so many others in this culture, picking and choosing which spiritual rites and symbols speak to them on a highly personal level.
"My generation doesn't wear hats. Why? Because we hated all of that," said Lowe, who attends a progressive Christian Methodist Episcopal congregation. "We understood that women wore hats because of modesty and because of the traditional values of the community. So we all said, 'That has to go. We're not going to do it.' "
But most of the pastors' wives, or "first ladies" of the congregations, kept the tradition alive, along with the revered older women often known as the "mothers of the church." And then the cultural search for African traditions led some women to try wearing forms of headdresses. Many Muslim women continued to wear simple head coverings. A few younger women simply decided gloves and hats were fashionable.
"Today, you may see hats or you may not see hats," said Lowe. "The key is that this is all a matter of personal choice. The theology is no longer there to back up the tradition. The links to the past are almost gone. Whether that's good or bad depends on your point of view."