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.