Mae Reeves' Hats Hang At National Museum Of African American History And Culture | KUOW News and Information

Mae Reeves' Hats Hang At National Museum Of African American History And Culture

Sep 18, 2016
Originally published on September 24, 2016 10:19 am

African-American women have been wearing fancy hats to church for generations. That tradition is being celebrated at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, which officially opens in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 24. Vintage turbans, caps and fascinators that span a half-century are on display — all from the shop of one woman.

Her name is Mae Reeves.

In 1942, a time when few women were becoming entrepreneurs, Reeves opened what would become a Philadelphia institution with a $500 bank loan. Her hat shop, Mae's Millinery, helped dress some of the most famous African-American women in the country, including iconic singers Marian Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne.

Reeves hung her hat above the store, raising her family in the same building — first in downtown Philadelphia and later West Philadelphia.

"You do what you got to do," she said, reflecting on the early years of running her business in an interview with the Smithsonian recorded after the museum acquired a collection of her hats. "I had to work with my family and make a living too. So I did it, and I'm very proud of it."

Downstairs, customers ranging from white socialites to black domestic workers kept the cash drawer ringing. Reeves' daughter Donna Limerick, a former NPR producer, remembers putting on a black dress and pearls as a teenager to help her mother sell hats made of blue tulle, pink organza and purple feathers.

"During Mother's Day and Easter, when women would just come one after the other, that bell would just ring, ring, ring," Limerick says.

Reeves' hat business helps paint an extraordinary portrait of the Great Migration, according to Paul Gardullo, a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

"Think about this: You're talking about amidst of a depression, amidst of Jim Crow, a young woman who has moved from the South to the North, and she made a success of herself really from nothing," Gardullo says.

And many of the women who wore her hats were trying to make more than just a fashion statement.

"For black women who grew up in the Jim Crow era, as my grandmother and my mother did, hats were a way for them to take ownership over their style, a way for them to assert that they mattered," says Tiffany Gill, author of Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women's Activism in the Beauty Industry.

A Philadelphia resident, Gill says she still hears women talking about how they used to save money to buy a hat from Reeves' shop. It was a center not just for black fashion but also for civic life on election days.

"My mom would allow them to bring these big machines into her tiny little hat shop, so people in the community could vote," Limerick recalls.

Every city, Gill says, once had at least one popular, black-owned hat shop where African-American customers could often find better service than at white-owned stores.

"When I see older women who still wear hats to church on Sunday or bring them out on special occasions, it's just a reminder to revere that generation and the ways they asserted dignity when to be black and to be a woman was something that brought about ridicule," Gill says.

They're a generation that Reeves helped dress with pride.

"I like to make them pretty," Reeves explained with a chuckle in her interview with the Smithsonian.

Prompting her mother, Limerick asked, "So many women came to your hat shop and when they left, they sure looked beautiful, didn't they?"

"Oh yeah," Reeves answered.

The hat shop closed in 1997 and a few years later, Reeves moved into a retirement home.

"When she left, her final words were: 'Don't touch anything in this hat shop! I'm coming back to make more hats,' " says Limerick, who later arranged for the shop's contents to be donated to the Smithsonian.

Reeves is turning 104 in October and can no longer practice what for her was more than a craft.

"It was a calling for me, something that I loved to do, making them colorful," she told the Smithsonian. "That's why they came from everywhere to get something different."

The National Museum of African American History and Culture has recreated a portion of Reeves' shop, complete with its original red-neon sign, sewing machine and antique furniture. And she's planning to go see her hats again, this time in the nation's capital.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Obama dedicates the National Museum of African American History and Culture today. It's a fancy affair that fits in with a tradition that African-American women have had for generations wearing beautiful, exquisite and elaborate hats. The new museum, in fact, celebrates vintage turbans, caps and fascinators all from the shop of one woman. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has her story.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: In 1942, Mae Reeves started what would become a Philadelphia institution with a $500 bank loan. Her hat shop helped dress some of the most famous women in the country, like Marian Anderson...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAV'N HEAV'N")

MARIAN ANDERSON: (Singing) I got a robe. You got a robe.

WANG: ...Ella Fitzgerald...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOP HAT, WHITE TIE, AND TAILS")

ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) I'm puttin' on my top hat.

WANG: ...And Lena Horne.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANY PLACE I HANG MY HAT IS HOME")

LENA HORNE: (Singing) Cause any place I hang my hat is home.

WANG: Mae Reeves hung her hat above the store where she lived.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAE REEVES: You do what you got to do. I had to work with my family and make a living, too. So did it and I'm very proud of it.

WANG: Downstairs, customers ranging from white socialites to black domestic workers kept the cash drawer ringing. Reeves' daughter Donna Limerick, a former NPR producer, remembers putting on a black dress and pearls as a teen to help her mother sell hats.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONNA LIMERICK: During Mother's Day and Easter, when women would just come one after the other, that bell would just ring, ring, ring.

WANG: Mae Reeves' hat business helps paint an extraordinary portrait of the Great Migration, according to Paul Gardullo, a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

PAUL GARDULLO: Think about this - so you're talking about amidst of a depression, amidst of Jim Crow, a young woman who has moved from the South to the north, and she made a success of herself really from nothing.

WANG: And many of the women who wore her hats were trying to make more than just a fashion statement.

TIFFANY GILL: For black women who grew up in the Jim Crow era, as my grandmother and my mother did, hats were a way for them to take ownership over their style, a way for them to assert that they mattered.

WANG: Tiffany Gill is the author of "Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women's Activism In The Beauty Industry." She lives in Philadelphia and says people still talk about Mae Reeves' hat shop. It was a center not just for black fashion but also for civic life. It turned into a polling place on Election Day. Every city, Gill says, once had at least one popular black-owned hat shop where African-American customers could often find better service than at white-owned stores.

GILL: When I see older women who still wear hats to church on Sunday or bring them out on special occasions, it's just a reminder to revere that generation and the ways that they asserted dignity when to be black and to be a woman was something that brought about ridicule.

WANG: They're a generation that Mae Reeves helped dress with pride.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REEVES: I like to make them pretty (laughter).

LIMERICK: So many women came to your hat shop, and when they left, they sure looked beautiful, didn't they?

REEVES: Oh, yeah.

WANG: Reeves and her daughter Donna Limerick were interviewed by the Smithsonian a few years ago. The hat shop closed in 1997, and a few years later, Reeves moved into a retirement home.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIMERICK: When she left, her final words were don't touch anything in this hat shop. I'm coming back to make more hats.

WANG: Mae Reeves is going to turn 104 next month. She can no longer practice what for her was more than a craft.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REEVES: It was a calling for me, something that I loved to do, making them colorful. That's why they came from everywhere, to get something different.

WANG: The National Museum of African American History and Culture has recreated a portion of Mae Reeves' shop, and she's planning to see her hats again in the nation's capital. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.