Mae Reeves, a pioneering milliner who specialized in custom made hats, died on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016, at the St. Francis Country House in Darby. She was 104.
She was born on Oct. 29, 1912 as Lula Mae Grant to the late Samuel and Bessie Grant in Vidalia, Ga., She was the second of six children.
Reeves was accepted into Georgia State Teacher’s College in Savannah, Ga. when she was 16-years old. She received her teaching certificate and began teaching in Lyons, Ga. Reeves also worked as a writer for the Savannah Tribune newspaper, writing about social, school and church affairs. During summers, she attended the Chicago School of Millinery to learn how to create “one of a kind” handmade hats.
While teaching in Lyons, she met and married the late William Mincey. One son, William “Sonny” Mincey, Jr. was born to their union.
Reeves came to Philadelphia in 1934 to work at a ladies apparel shop on South Street. While there, she created many beautiful hats. However, Reeves was determined to open her own hat business. In 1940 at age 28, she received a bank loan from Citizens and Southern Bank and opened Mae’s Millinery Shop, at 1630 South St. She became one of the first African American women to own a business in downtown Philadelphia. Women from all walks of life visited Reeves shop, including celebrities, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt, Marian Anderson, socialites from the DuPont and Annenberg families, women from all professions and church women. She enjoyed traveling to New York and Paris to find the best materials for her custom made hats.
In 1944, she married the late Joel Reeves, employed at the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper and also owner of a catering business. They were happily married for 35 years until his death in 1982. He was always a loyal supporter of Reeves’s desire to own a hat business. They had two children, Donna Limerick Pitsenberger and Reginald Reeves.
By 1953, Reeves business had grown substantially, so she opened a shop at 41 N. 60th St. near other prosperous businesses. Her career spanned 50 years to 1997, when she was 85-years-old. By this time, she had created outstanding hats and become famous for her turbans, pillbox hats, feather creations, cocktail hats and magnificent hats known as “show-stoppers.”
Reeves and her husband were members at Our Lady of the Rosary Church for 40 years. She belonged to many professional organizations, including the Ladies Auxiliary of the Knights of Columbus, the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers and the NAACP. She served as president of the 60th Street Business Association.
She received special recognition for her accomplishments. July 27, 2010 was proclaimed “Hats Off to Mae Day,” by the city of Philadelphia. She received the prestigious Philadelphia Liberty Bell from Mayor Michael Nutter, hosted by the African American Museum of Philadelphia, organized by the Philadelphia Retail Marketing Alliance.
On Oct. 29, 2010, she received the “Pioneer” award from the Philadelphia Multicultural Affairs Congress.
In 2009, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture acquired Reeves’ extensive vintage hat collection, antique furniture from her millinery shop and other personal items. The museum officially opened on Sept. 24, 2016. Reeves has an permanent exhibit at the museum, where her contributions to the fashion world will live on for many years to come.
Her family said she will be missed for her loving personality, beautiful smile, wisdom, generosity and enthusiasm about life.
In addition to her children, she is survived by: her grandchildren, Cassandra, William, Renee, Joel, Terrel, Regina, Reginald Jr, Jultane and Lauren, 13 great-grandchildren, eight great-great grandchildren, godchildren, Barbara Hoyman and Joan Jenkins; friend, Cynthia Smith and other relatives and friends.
Services were held on Dec. 22 at The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Peter and Paul, North 18th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway.