Mae Reeves, 1912-2016

  • Mae-Reeves-WWP

Woman Category: Business & Entrepreneurship and Fashion & BeautyWoman Tags: African-American Women, Businesswoman, and Philly Women

  • HerStory

    A pioneering milliner, famous for her custom-made hats, and one of the first African-American women to own a business in downtown Philadelphia.

    Lula Mae Grant was born in Vidalia, Georgia, the second of 6 siblings. At the age of 14, her parents died, and she had to learn cooking and sewing to take care of her siblings. At 16, Mae attended Georgia State Teacher’s College, and after graduation, she worked as a teacher as well as writing articles for the Savannah Tribune. During the summer vacations, she traveled to Chicago to learn how to make handmade hats in the Chicago School of Millinery. She met William Mincey, they got married, and soon after, her first son was born. Unfortunately, a few years later, her husband died in a car accident.
     
    A widow and a single mother at 22, she followed the Great Migration and moved to Philadelphia, where she worked as a milliner at a women’s clothing shop, dreaming of opening her store. It took her a few years, but in 1940, at the age of 28, she was granted a $500 loan from the black-owned Citizens and Southern Bank and opened “Mae’s Millinery Shop” at 1630 South Street. It made her one of the first African-American women to own a business in downtown Philadelphia. Her handmade, one-of-a-kind hats drew a diverse clientele, from housekeepers to socialites, schoolteachers alongside celebrities such as Marian Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald, and Eartha Kitt. As her business grew, she was able to travel to NYC and Paris to purchase materials for her work of art hats.
     
    At 32, Mae married Joel Reeves and relocated the store to a more residential neighborhood of West Philadelphia. In 1953, she opened a second shop at 41 North 60th Street and became the first African-American woman to own business on the commercial corridor of 60th Street. Over time, she began serving as the president of the 60th Street Business Association.
     
    Her shop was more than just retail, but a location for community gathering, where people from all classes and all races came together. As a NAACP member, she advocated for exercising Voting Right, and on election days, she turned the shop into a polling station. She continued to make hats until she was 85 years old. She refused to sell the store, insisting it will remain untouched so she could come back and make more hats, and so it remained until she passed away at 104 years old.
     

    “You’re not fully dressed unless you wear a hat.”

    “You’re not fully dressed unless you wear a hat.”

     


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • She served champagne and sherries to her clients.
    • The shop contents were donated to the Smithsonian and are on display in a permanent exhibit in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.
    • She was a member of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Knights of Columbus and the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers.
    • She was married twice and had 3 children, 9 grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren, and 8 great-great-grandchildren.
    • July 27th, 2010, was proclaimed by the city of Philadelphia as “Hats Off to Mae Day.”
    • Her shop was recreated at The National Museum of African American History and Culture, where they preserve its original items, such as the store’s red-neon sign, antique furniture, and her sewing machine.
  • More About Her Legacy
    Awards:

    * Philadelphia Liberty Bell Prize (2010)
    * The "Pioneer" award from the Philadelphia Multicultural Affairs Congress (2010)

  • Watch and Learn More

  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • Booking.com
    Booking.com

  • Showstoppers: Mae Reeves of Philadelphia Vintage Hat Collection

    A "showstopper" is what milliner and accessories designer extraordinaire, Lula Mae Reeves called her marvelous designs worn by elegantly dressed women from all walks of life. Enjoy a wonderful conversation about Mrs. Reeves and her influence on fashion among Donna Limerick, Mae Reeves' daughter, Reneé S. Anderson, Ph.D., NMAAHC fashion and textiles specialist, and LaFleur Paysour, NMAAHC media relations specialist. The Mae Reeves Hat Collection was recently acquired by the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Selected designs from the Reeves Showstopper Collection will be modeled.

  • Reeves and her husband Joel in circa 1953. Photo credit - Wikipedia

  • Citations and Additional References:
    Black Then website.
    NPR website.
    Wikipedia page.


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