Smithsonian honors Philadelphia hat-maker

Taking a bow, Donna Limerick (center) and others modeling her mother's hats acknowledge Mae Reeves, top photo, at the end of the ceremony at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. Thirty of Reeves' hats will become part of the Smithsonian's permanent collection.
Taking a bow, Donna Limerick (center) and others modeling her mother's hats acknowledge Mae Reeves, top photo, at the end of the ceremony at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. Thirty of Reeves' hats will become part of the Smithsonian's permanent collection.
Posted: July 28, 2010

Donna Limerick had always believed her mother was a pioneer.

Not many women in the 1940s had the gumption and the bank loans to start their own business. Especially not African American women. Especially not African American women who designed and made millinery in Philadelphia.

Still, Limerick didn't want to be presumptuous. She wasn't sure that her mother's legacy would qualify for the Smithsonian.

A documentary producer for National Public Radio, Limerick had heard that the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture was looking for compelling stories about black families and culture. With modest expectations, she nominated her mother, Mae Reeves.

Tuesday, two of the museum's curators attended a ceremony honoring Reeves and announced that 30 hats and several pieces of antique furniture from Mae's Millinery shop in West Philadelphia will become part of the Smithsonian's permanent collection.

"Oh, God bless you," Reeves said, as television cameras closed in on her. She'd just been handed a softball-sized bronze model of the Liberty Bell that clanged happily in her lap.

"It's our biggest honor," said Melanie Johnson, city representative, apologizing that Mayor Nutter couldn't make the event. He was in Washington for a meeting, representing the U.S. Conference of Mayors, but promised to make a personal visit upon his return.

"Oh my goodness!" Reeves said.

Now 97 and living in a retirement home in Darby, she arrived in a stylish wheelchair upholstered in teal leatherette. Her arthritic knees were covered by a black chenille blanket to match her beaded black jacket and dress. She wore a hat (of course) - one of her favorites, a cloche layered thickly in shiny black feathers with an emerald and turquoise gleam.

For more than 50 years, until 1997 when she retired at 85, Reeves ran her own store, first on South Street and later on North 60th Street. She sold to stars such as Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and Marian Anderson; the social and political elite like Leonore Annenberg and C. Delores Tucker; and everyday women seeking audacious hats.

Midway through the ceremony, held in the auditorium of the African American Museum in Philadelphia, a short video was shown. Produced by one of her nine grandchildren, it captures Reeves in a sparky exchange with her daughter.

Having grown up in Georgia and studied millinery in Chicago, Limerick asks Reeves, "Why did you come to Philadelphia?"

"Because I knew people!" Reeves says.

"You had a lot of celebrities as customers."

"Yeaaahhhhhh," she chuckles. "I made stuff that they wanted!"

Although all who attended had been asked to wear hats, about half in the crowd of about 50 failed to comply - including Johnson, the city representative.

"I couldn't find one that didn't overwhelm my dress," she said apologetically. In her remarks, Johnson praised Reeves for helping to pave the way for black businesswomen.

"Because of her, we can keep reaching and dreaming," she said.

Reeves "inspired a generation of entrepreneurs," said her grandson, Joel Limerick, who runs a data systems company in Washington. He introduced his uncle, William "Sonny" Mincey, who ran an ice cream store across from Mae's Millinery for 12 years.

Speaking from under the wide brim of her fuchsia straw hat, Michele Gates Moresi of the Smithsonian said Reeves' hats represented "an important acquisition" for the new African American museum, scheduled to open on the National Mall in 2015.

After Reeves' daughter first told her about the hats two years ago, she said, they had not been in touch. Then in April 2009, she got a call.

A leak had sprung in the pipes of Reeves' now-shuttered shop and the family was worried that the hats still stored there might be ruined.

"I thought I might have to give them to Goodwill," said Limerick. She phoned Moresi and three days later, a white-gloved team from the Smithsonian arrived to inspect the shop.

This is history here, they told Limerick.

Tuesday, a jazz trio played. Crab cakes and wine were served on black tablecloths tied with lipstick pink ribbons. "Pink and black are Mae's favorite colors," her daughter explained.

Models - some hip-swishing professionals, others game anchors and one meteorologist from local television stations - appeared on stage wearing hats from Limerick's personal collection (not the museum's.)

Other than baseball caps and lately, the stingy-brimmed fedora, hat-wearing "is so not of our generation," said one of Reeves' bareheaded granddaughters. It was hard to imagine what it must have been like to step out of Mae's Millinery in something so festooned and fabulous.

"Are you ready for the showstopper?" Limerick asked.

Applause. But not enough.

"Are you ready for the showstopper?" she asked again.

Better.

Removing her black velvet hat blooming with clusters of glittery pink roses, Limerick turned around, stooped low, then reemerged wearing one of her mother's boldest. An enormous awning of black feathers, soaring from her forehead like an ostrich's tail.

Beaming, she stepped off stage and strutted through the crowd.

"A showstopper, right?"


Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

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