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On the few occasions her family went to church, Tina Burnside was enthralled by the sight of women wearing over-the-top, colorful and sometimes sequined hats.

“I just remember, particularly on Easter Sunday, you have the women there in the beautiful hats, and the matching outfit, and the purse and the shoes,” Burnside said. “It’s just a very beautiful, colorful expression of one’s self.”

Burnside now is the main curator at the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery, which she co-founded this year. And she’s turned her childhood admiration for church hats into an art exhibit.

Portraits and paintings of black women sporting extravagant headwear debuted at the museum in November and will be on display until the end of January. The “Grace” exhibit pays homage to the history of the fancy hats and features works from local artist Beverly Hammond and photographer Walter Griffin.

As a tradition deeply rooted in the African-American community, wearing flamboyant hats to church has both spiritual and cultural significance that dates back to slavery. After being stripped of their heritage, customs and traditions and forced to assimilate into white American culture, slaves were given just one day to express their identity, Burnside said. So on Sunday, their day of worship, women went to church with hats made from straw.

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