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.