A Family Affair

During the late 1800s, African Americans owned businesses throughout Raleigh. As racial segregation intensified around 1900, black entrepreneurs banded together in concentrated business districts. C. E. Lightner established his Arcade hotel, pictured here ca. 1925–1930, on Hargett Street in 1921. Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina
During the late 1800s, African Americans owned businesses throughout Raleigh. As racial segregation intensified around 1900, black entrepreneurs banded together in concentrated business districts. C. E. Lightner established his Arcade hotel, pictured here ca. 1925–1930, on Hargett Street in 1921.
Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina.

Raleigh, 1900: It’s Complicated

From her home on Cabarrus Street, young Willie Otey could walk four blocks north to Hargett Street. African American doctors, restaurateurs, and druggists served a vibrant black middle class there—a thriving world within a world in an increasingly segregated era.

Yet her father, Henry Otey, owned a barbershop on Fayetteville Street inside the Yarborough House, Raleigh’s grandest hotel. Among his all-white clientele were leading politicians and businessmen. Some of those men—who valued Otey’s skill above white barbers—had recently led a statewide white supremacy campaign to legalize inequality in North Carolina.

The Otey's Raleigh. Courtesy of North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The Oteys’ Raleigh.
Courtesy of North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“On Hargett Street on Saturdays, the people would just pour out there and hang out and go to the eating places.”

    —Mildred Otey Taylor

 

Willie Otey, ca. 1910. Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina
Willie Otey, ca. 1910.
Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina.

“A Lovely Place”

Young Willie Otey (far left), friend Louise Hoover (far right), Lizzie Otey (second from right), and other friends spend time together in their South Raleigh neighborhood, ca. 1910. Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina
Young Willie Otey (far left), friend Louise Hoover (far right), Lizzie Otey (second from right), and other friends spend time together in their South Raleigh neighborhood, ca. 1910.
Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina.

With eight children—from eldest, Willie, to youngest, Henry Jr.—all born within 11 years (1894–1905), Josephine and Henry Otey rarely experienced a quiet moment in their Cabarrus Street home.

Caring adults shaped the children’s upbringing. Maternal grandmother, Virginia Alston, lived with the Oteys. An accomplished seamstress, she, along with Josephine, taught her six granddaughters to sew. The Reverend and Mrs. J. E. King, who lived next door, treated the Oteys like adopted grandchildren.

“It always surprised my mother. When she would make things for my sisters and me, I could copy them for my dolls.”

—Willie Otey Kay

Go Bears!

Big things happened for Willie Otey at Shaw University. In 1912 she earned a degree in home economics and won first prize in the school’s dressmaking competition. Young romance blossomed when she met John Walcott Kay, a student at the university’s Leonard Medical School. Later, she put her children through college there and gave back to her alma mater as a successful businesswoman.

Willie Otey (standing on porch, upper left) and her classmates on the steps of Estey Hall at Shaw University, ca. 1912. Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina
Willie Otey (standing on porch, upper left) and her classmates on the steps of Estey Hall at Shaw University, ca. 1912.
Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina.

New Beginnings and Tragic Endings

Willie Otey Kay on her wedding day, Raleigh, 1915. Courtesy of Mrs. Elizabeth C. Lewis.
Willie Otey Kay on her wedding day, Raleigh, 1915.
Courtesy of Mrs. Elizabeth C. Lewis.

Willie Otey’s 1915 marriage to John Walcott Kay began a new chapter in her life. She left her hometown to follow his dream of creating a hospital for African Americans in Wilmington.

Life was busy. Willie gave birth to seven children in nine years, five of whom survived infancy. John devoted himself to his work and cofounded Community Hospital in 1920. Seven years later he developed an abdominal hernia but deferred treatment to continue treating patients. Complications arose, and he died suddenly at age 37. Stunned and heartbroken, Willie and her children looked to an uncertain future.

Willie Otey Kay with newborn daughter Inez Otey Kay, Wilmington, ca. 1918. Courtesy of Grandson Harold White Jr.
Willie Otey Kay with newborn daughter Inez Otey Kay, Wilmington, ca. 1918.
Courtesy of Grandson Harold White Jr.
John Walcott Kay drives his horse and buggy through Wilmington, ca. 1920. Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina
John Walcott Kay drives his horse and buggy through Wilmington, ca. 1920.
Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina.

 

John Walcott Kay founded Community Hospital in Wilmington in 1920 in collaboration with six other physicians and community leaders. Courtesy of the New Hanover County Public Library
John Walcott Kay founded Community Hospital in Wilmington in 1920 in collaboration with six other physicians and community leaders.
Courtesy of the New Hanover County Public Library.

“After his death I was nearly crazy, but . . . I remembered that I majored at Shaw in Home Economitry. And it came to me that that’s what I could do, start dressmaking.”

—Willie Otey Kay

Return and Reinvention

In Henry Otey’s barbershop, shown here in 1904, barbers and clients carried on lively conversations during haircuts and shaves. Through these informal exchanges, Otey spread word of Willie Kay’s blossoming dressmaking business. Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina
In Henry Otey’s barbershop, shown here in 1904, barbers and clients carried on lively conversations during haircuts and shaves. Through these informal exchanges, Otey spread word of Willie Kay’s blossoming dressmaking business.
Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina.

Widowed with five children ranging in age from one to nine, Willie Kay returned home to Raleigh. She moved into her parents’ house and quickly devised a plan.

Always a skilled textile artist, Kay now channeled her talents into a business venture. She set up shop at home, where she could be present for her children during the day. Her sisters offered support, and her father spread word of her new enterprise. Though her life’s path had taken a sharp turn, she quickly embraced her new identity: Willie Kay, Dressmaker.

“I understand barbers like to talk as they work . . . and I think he told [his customers] . . . that I was sewing here at home. And then their wives and daughters began to come. And that’s really how it began.”

                                                        —Willie Otey Kay

Left to right: Chloe Otey Jervay Laws, Mildred Otey Taylor, Willie Otey Kay, Josephine Otey Hayes, and Elizabeth Otey Constant. Courtesy of Mrs. Bessie Taylor
Left to right: Chloe Otey Jervay Laws, Mildred Otey Taylor, Willie Otey Kay, Josephine Otey Hayes, and Elizabeth Otey Constant.
Courtesy of Mrs. Bessie Taylor.

Strong Sisters

Anyone acquainted with the Oteys knew they were a family of strong women. The Otey sisters were inseparable, determined, and talented.

Mildred Otey Taylor established her own dressmaking business, as did Chloe Otey Jervay Laws. Elizabeth Otey (Lizzie) Constant beaded expertly, and she embellished the dresses her sisters constructed. Josephine Otey Hayes lived in Atlantic City, New Jersey, but also sewed, specializing in children’s attire. In Raleigh and beyond, the Otey name quickly became synonymous with fine formalwear.

“We would work together sometimes. If one of us got in a tight place, the other would help out.”

—Mildred Otey Taylor

Evening gown with matching overbodice, cotton velveteen with satin acetate lining, 1964. Made by Willie Otey Kay for June Kay Campbell. Embellished by June Kay Campbell and Mildred Campbell Christmas with rhinestones, sequins, and bugle beads. Museum Collection
Evening gown with matching overbodice, cotton velveteen with satin acetate lining, 1964. Made by Willie Otey Kay for June Kay Campbell. Embellished by June Kay Campbell and Mildred Campbell Christmas with rhinestones, sequins, and bugle beads.
Museum Collection.

When your granddaughter is chosen queen of the debutante ball, not only must she look impeccable, but her mother must as well. Willie Otey Kay made this red sheath dress with matching overbodice for her daughter June Kay Campbell to wear to her granddaughter Mildred Campbell’s coming out.

Willie Kay also made a cocktail-length dress that June Campbell could wear with the embellished overbodice on less-formal occasions. Museum Collection
Willie Kay also made a cocktail-length dress that June Campbell could wear with the embellished overbodice on less-formal occasions.
Museum Collection.
Ralph and June Campbell celebrate the debut of their daughter, Mildred, at the Alpha Kappa Alpha Ball in Raleigh in 1964. Courtesy of Mr. Ralph Campbell Jr.
Ralph and June Campbell celebrate the debut of their daughter, Mildred, at the Alpha Kappa Alpha Ball in Raleigh in 1964.
Courtesy of Mr. Ralph Campbell Jr.

 

 

Wedding gown with matching veil, satin acetate with nylon lace and nylon tulle, 1964–1969. Made by Willie Otey Kay. Embellished by Elizabeth Otey Constant with sequins, beads, and satin acetate ribbon. Museum Collection
Wedding gown with matching veil, satin acetate with nylon lace and nylon tulle, 1964–1969. Made by Willie Otey Kay. Embellished by Elizabeth Otey Constant with sequins, beads, and satin acetate ribbon.
Museum Collection.

In 1964 Mildred Otey Taylor made a debutante gown for her grandniece and namesake, Mildred Campbell. When Campbell married five years later, Willie Otey Kay, her grandmother, took the lace from the earlier gown and incorporated it in the new dress.

In preparation for her upcoming nuptials, Mildred Campbell models her wedding ensemble in her grandmother’s living room. Courtesy of Mrs. Mildred Campbell Christmas
In preparation for her upcoming nuptials, Mildred Campbell models her wedding ensemble in her grandmother’s living room.
Courtesy of Mrs. Mildred Campbell Christmas.
Mildred Otey Taylor, who ran her own dressmaking business, fits her granddaughter Carmen Taylor’s debutante dress in 1976. Courtesy of Mrs. Bessie Taylor
Mildred Otey Taylor, who ran her own dressmaking business, fits her granddaughter Carmen Taylor’s debutante dress in 1976.
Courtesy of Mrs. Bessie Taylor.
Kay’s daughter June Campbell accompanies her son Bill to the Murphey School on September 7, 1960, the day he integrated the institution. Willie Kay often picked Bill up in the afternoons. Courtesy of The News & Observer of Raleigh
Kay’s daughter June Campbell accompanies her son Bill to the Murphey School on September 7, 1960, the day he integrated the institution. Willie Kay often picked Bill up in the afternoons.
Courtesy of The News & Observer of Raleigh.

Supporting the Struggle

From her armchair in the corner, Willie Otey Kay listened as civil rights advocates discussed strategies around June and Ralph Campbell’s kitchen table. She was not vocal or visible like her daughter and son-in-law, who, along with other family members, were prominent Raleigh activists during the 1960s and 1970s. But Kay supported the movement in her own quiet way. Her home became a safe haven for family when bomb threats made them unsafe in their own houses, and she escorted her grandson Bill home from class after he integrated Raleigh schools.

Mildred Otey Taylor also advocated for change. As a founding member of the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association, a group of African American leaders who promoted improvements in the black community, she garnered support for appointing nurses to black schools, hiring African American police officers, and establishing Ligon School and Chavis Park.

Baptismal ensemble, satin acetate and cotton, embellished with cotton insertion lace, hand-tatted cotton lace, synthetic chiffon, and satin acetate ribbon, 1947. Made by Willie Otey Kay for Ralph Campbell Jr. Museum Collection
Baptismal ensemble, satin acetate and cotton, embellished with cotton insertion lace, hand-tatted cotton lace, synthetic chiffon, and satin acetate ribbon, 1947. Made by Willie Otey Kay for Ralph Campbell Jr.
Museum Collection.

For Willie Kay’s beloved grandchildren and great-grandchildren, access to fine formalwear started early. She made baptismal gowns with matching coats and bonnets for use in family baptisms. Ralph Campbell Jr. wore this set at his 1947 christening.

Some 45 years after wearing this garment, Ralph Campbell Jr. became the first African American to hold statewide elected executive office in North Carolina as state auditor. Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina
Some 45 years after wearing this garment, Ralph Campbell Jr. became the first African American to hold statewide elected executive office in North Carolina as state auditor.
Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Building a Business →


2 thoughts on “A Family Affair

  1. I have a 1960 ball gown made by Mildred Otey Taylor for the Terpsichorean Debutante ball. It is alencon lace with satin cabbage roses, sequins and pearls . She made a crinoline skirt to go under it over a hoop. I also used it as a wedding dress in 1965. It has been boxed since that time. Would you have any interest in seeing it. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about this amazing pioneer family of women who changed the world making it a better place.

    Like

    1. Absolutely!! Your dress sounds beautiful. A curation or collections staff member will be contacting you soon about logistics of opening and viewing the dress. Thank you for your sweet comment- we love the Otey sisters and all that they accomplished as well.

      Like

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