Mae Reeves was born in 1912 in Vidalia, Georgia. When Mae was a little girl, although outright slavery was now banned, the effort to maintain white race-based hegemony was still in full force.
“Jim Crow” laws taking rights away from Blacks were enacted in one state of the South after another. The Klan was given free rein to exercise police power over Blacks without fear of reprisal. Schools and other public services for Blacks were defunded. History textbooks used in southern schools were designed to teach white superiority and Black backwardness, so that children imbibed these ideas from the earliest age. [These practices persisted until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, but did not end entirely. Rather, they took on new shapes; the battle for racial justice continues to this day.]
Mae sought solace from better worlds she could create herself. She designed and sewed fancy clothes for her dolls. She wrote plays in which she starred. Yet sorrow came anyway; her parents died when she was fourteen. She and her younger siblings went to live with her grandmother.
Mae began work as a school teacher when she was still a teenager, in order to contribute to the upkeep of her family. She also wrote articles for the newspaper. To escape “Jim Crow,” she joined “The Great Migration,” i.e., the movement of approximately six million Blacks from the American South to Northern, Midwestern, and Western states roughly from the 1910s until the 1970s.
Settling in Chicago, Mae continued to teach, attending the Chicago School of Millinery during her summers off. She married and had a son, but her husband died in an accident, and Mae had to figure out a way to support her child on her own. She took Sonny and moved to Philadelphia where one of her brothers lived. There, she worked in a shop, and started making hats to sell – “fun hats with feathers, fancy hats with flowers, and everything in between.” “Mae of Philadelphia” became famous.
In 1941, at age 28, Mae went to a Black-owned bank and applied for a loan to open her own shop, “Mae’s Millinery.”
The author writes, “Mae made everyone feel their best selves with her glimmery hats, shimmery hats, snappy hats, and happy hats.” Famous Black entertainers like Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald came to her shop, but rich white ladies shopped there too.
Mae married again and had two more children. She volunteered with civil rights organizations, and “‘lifted as she climbed,’ raising money to help others in her community and driving older ladies around town in her shiny car, wherever they wanted to go.”
In 1947, Mae bought a new shop in a white area, and her loyal customers followed. She gave family members jobs in her shop and had her friends model her creations at fashion shows and fancy teas.
The fashions for hats changed: “In the 1960s and 1970s, fluffy Afros and poofy bouffants meant that Mae’s elegant creations and spectacular crowns were no longer in high demand.” But ladies still wanted her unique hats for church, and she kept her shop open for many years.
July 27, 2010 was declared “Hats Off to Mae Day,” by the city of Philadelphia. Mae was honored with the “Pioneer” award from the Philadelphia Multicultural Affairs Congress on October 29, 2010, on her 98th birthday.
When Mae died on December 14, 2016 at age 104, she was survived by nine grandchildren, thirteen great-grandchildren, and eight great-great grandchildren. The author writes:
“Her magnificent work and unquenchable spirit live on. She made the crowns, and we can hold them in our hearts. Mae, like so many, made a way out of no way, so we can hold our heads high and our dreams even higher.”
In 2009, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC ) obtained Reeves’ collection of vintage hats, and antique furniture from her millinery shop, in addition to other personal items. In 2016 the museum opened with a permanent exhibit of Reeves’ extensive collection, including the shop’s original red-neon sign, sewing machine, and furniture.
Back matter of the book includes an informative and touching interview with Donna Limerick, Mae Reeve’s daughter, an interview with Dr. Renee S. Anderson, Head of Collections at the NMAAHC, “About the NMAACH,” and a list of sources.
Illustrations by Andrea Pippins reflect her background in graphic design.
Evaluation: Mae Reeves was so brave, talented, and inspirational, it is hard not to get excited about her story. I would have liked to have seen more actual photos of her work, but if you put “Mae Reeves hats” into Google images, you can see some of her magnificent creations. You can also go directly to a site on the Mae Reeves exhibit at NMAAHC, here.
Published by Crown Books for Young Readers, 2022