Smithsonian says "hats off" to local entrepreneur

July 27, 2010 97-year old Lula Mae Reeves is the first African American woman to open her own business in downtown Philadelphia.

She became a milliner in the early 1930s making hats and lots of them.

"The more I made, the more they liked them."

She opened her first hat shop on South Street in 1934.

Miss Mae's local customers included Marion Anderson and Lenore Annenberg. She was even sought out by celebrities like Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald when they visited the city.

Last spring, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture asked to acquire Mae's hat collection, along with some of the antique tools she used to make them. It as an opportunity to tell not only Mae's story, but:

"But many, many stories from her life and her business in terms of how African American's lived, how they became and were productive members of society," said Dr. Renee Anderson, a Smithsonian Museum specialist.

So Mae was honored with a fashion show, where Action News' own Lisa Thomas-Laury was delighted to be a model for some of Mae's unique creations.

She was also awarded the Philadelphia Liberty Bell.

"You don't have to own a business to find her inspirational. You just look at her as a woman and know what's possible," said Philadelphia city representative Melanie Johnson.

And for the several generations of loved ones who gathered to honor Mae she has been much more than an inspiration.

"She definitely deserves to get the keys to the city, I'm honored that I'm related to her," said great granddaughter Kasmira Gray.

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