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.
“On Hargett Street on Saturdays, the people would just pour out there and hang out and go to the eating places.”
—Mildred Otey Taylor
“A Lovely Place”
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
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.
New Beginnings and Tragic Endings
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.
“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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.