African-American women have been wearing fancy hats to church for generations. That tradition is being celebrated at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which officially opens in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 24. Vintage turbans, caps and fascinators that span a half-century are on display — all from the shop of one woman.
Her name is Mae Reeves.
In 1942, a time when few women were becoming entrepreneurs, Reeves opened what would become a Philadelphia institution with a $500 bank loan. Her hat shop, Mae’s Millinery, helped dress some of the most famous African-American women in the country, including iconic singers Marian Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne.
Reeves hung her hat above the store, raising her family in the same building — first in downtown Philadelphia and later West Philadelphia.
“You do what you got to do,” she said, reflecting on the early years of running her business in an interview with the Smithsonian recorded after the museum acquired a collection of her hats. “I had to work with my family and make a living too. So I did it, and I’m very proud of it.”
TIFFANY M. GILL, AUTHOR
Looking through the lens of black business history, Beauty Shop Politics shows how black beauticians in the Jim Crow era parlayed their economic independence and access to a public community space into platforms for activism. Tiffany M. Gill argues that the beauty industry played a crucial role in the creation of the modern black female identity and that the seemingly frivolous space of a beauty salon actually has stimulated social, political, and economic change.
From the founding of the National Negro Business League in 1900 and onward, African Americans have embraced the entrepreneurial spirit by starting their own businesses, but black women’s forays into the business world were overshadowed by those of black men. With a broad scope that encompasses the role of gossip in salons, ethnic beauty products, and the social meanings of African American hair textures, Gill shows how African American beauty entrepreneurs built and sustained a vibrant culture of activism in beauty salons and schools. Enhanced by lucid portrayals of black beauticians and drawing on archival research and oral histories, Beauty Shop Politics conveys the everyday operations and rich culture of black beauty salons as well as their role in building community.
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