From orphan in Georgia to first black woman business owner in Philadelphia to designer honored by the Smithsonian, Mae Reeves thanks God for the blessings of her life

By Elizabeth Fisher
Special to the CS&T

DARBY – Mae Reeves makes a wonderful first impression. Her smile draws attention to an attractive face that’s adorned with the slightest hint of blush. Her easy laughter seems to come from deep within a joyful soul. She’s stylish and charming, and, although her demeanor doesn’t reflect it, she is, at the age of 97, a celebrity.

Reeves was the first black woman to start a business in Philadelphia. Trained as a hat-maker at the Chicago School of Millinery in the 1930s, she opened a shop on South Street in Philadelphia in 1940. Later, she took her business to West Philadelphia, where she made and sold her creations until her retirement in the 1980s, said her daughter, Donna Limerick.

Reeves described her work as “making a living.” Her recollections are of customers coming in “from all over” to buy hats of every style and shape, from small black hats with delicate veils to more dramatic confections in a variety of colors, festooned with ribbons and flowers.

“I designed my own hats, and I had to go to New York to buy the materials I needed. It took a lot of time to shape those designs and to size the hats,” Reeves recalled.{{more}}

Customers included such luminaries as Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Marion Anderson and Mrs. Walter Annenberg. On a recent afternoon, Reeves, a resident of St. Francis Country Home in Darby (to which she chose to retire because it gives her the opportunity to attend daily Mass and receive the Eucharist) appeared pleasantly surprised when reminded that 30 of the hats she created have been selected for permanent exhibition in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

“Well, God bless them,” was her response.

If Reeve’s life story were a book, it would be a page-turner filled with tragedy, endurance, deep faith and a motivation to succeed. From the beginning, she set her goals and pursued them with enthusiasm. Born in Vidalia, Ga., and orphaned at the age of 14, she and her five siblings were raised by her grandmother, Lula Carnegie Wood.

As the second oldest child, it fell to her to help her grandmother with her younger brothers and sisters. Although fashion as a career came later in life, her grandmother set the stage for Reeves’ interest in fashion by dressing her every day in lace dresses and adorning her hair with ribbons as a child.

Reeves graduated from the Dickerson Training School in Vidalia in 1928 and went on to Georgia State Teachers College. Following graduation, she taught for a while in Tombs County, Ga., and worked for the local newspaper, writing stories about social events in her community.

At the age of 19, she met and married William Buddy Mincey, who owned a tailor shop in Lyon, Ga. The couple had one child, William. Reeves was windowed a few years later when her husband was killed in a car accident.

Reeves continued teaching, but from 1931-34, she used her summers to attend the Chicago School of Millinery, where she learned to make and shape hats. Her favorite activity, however, was decorating them with the flowers and ribbons for which she later became so famous.

In 1934, the budding milliner visited a brother in Philadelphia and decided to make the City of Brotherly Love her home. She supported herself and her son by selling cosmetics part-time, then working as a sales assistant at a ladies apparel shop on South Street. It was at that shop where her dream of having her own business blossomed.

That dream came true in 1940 when, at the age of 28, and with a $500 loan from Citizens and Southern Bank, she opened Mae Millinery Shop at 1630 South Street.

In 1944, two events changed her life. She moved her shop to 59th Street, and she met Joel Edward Reeves, whom she would later marry and have two children: Donna (1948) and Reginald (1951). The couple enjoyed a happy family life and Joel fully supported his wife’s business ambitions. Joel died in 1982 after the couple had been married 35 years.

During her working years, Reeves’ worked tirelessly to raise funds for Our Lady of the Rosary Parish in West Philadelphia, where she was a parishioner for 56 years.

Her happiest memories of that time revolve around the friendships she made among the Sisters of St. Joseph, who taught at the school. Reeves said she gladly drove them to various errands, and they came to rely on her for transportation.

It wasn’t all business, though.

“You know, in those days, the sisters didn’t get out much or get to see their families. I would take them to our country house (near Cape May) to have picnics and to just relax. I think they really enjoyed those days in the country,” she said.

During his lifetime, her husband Joel was a member of the Knights of Columbus and Reeves belonged to the Knights’ auxiliary. During her long career, she joined many civic and business organizations, including the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers, the National Freedom Day Association, the Women’s Business and Professional Association, the NAACP and the 19th District Democratic Committee. She also served as president of the 60th Street Business Association.

May retired in 1997 at the age of 85. By then, fashions had changed and few women wore hats, but she continued to take hat orders from her special clients while still living on the second floor of her shop.

By 2003, however, severe arthritis set in, leaving the shop owner unable to traverse the steps. She moved into St. Francis where “they take such good care of me,” she said. Her frailty seems no match for her ebullient spirits.

“I’m very happy because I believe doing good things in life make you happy. I can say that I’ve worked hard to make others happy, too,” she said.

In 2009, the National Museum of African American History and Culture was in search of stories that depicted the lives of black families in America. Limerick, then a producer for National Public Radio, nominated her mother, and museum representatives were at her door in short order, Limerick said.

At a special ceremony held at the African American Museum in Philadelphia in July, Reeves was presented with the key to the city of Philadelphia by representatives of Mayor Michael Nutter. She also received a bronze replica of the Liberty Bell.

During that ceremony, Limerick and several other women modeled the hats chosen by the museum.

The accolades continue. On Oct. 29 – Reeves’ 98th birthday – she will receive the Pioneer Award from the Philadelphia Multicultural Affairs Congress, a spanision of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau that promotes multicultural business and tourism.

Reeves takes little credit for the honors bestowed on her, instead saying she thanks God for everything.

“I always relied on Him. Nobody else could have helped me as He did, giving me that kind of mind. I praise Him always for what he did for me,” she said.

Elizabeth Fisher is a freelance journalist and member of St. Mark Parish in Bristol.