North Carolina entrepreneur Mary Richardson tailors a successful career in Harlem

by Lerin Williams

Article from the February 1950 issue of Ebony Magazine

In the February 1950 issue of Ebony Magazine, Mary Richardson was listed in a who’s who of African-American women that thrived after their divorces by becoming entrepreneurs. Included among the list were Fleecie Jordan (bandleader Louis Jordan’s ex-wife), who owned properties in Chicago and Arizona; Fisk University music professor and concert pianist Lois Towles; and Nadine Cole, ex-chorus performer-turned-owner of multiple properties and co-owner of a bonding agency, who was previously married to Nat King Cole. Mrs. Richardson was described as a “successful New York modiste with elite Park Avenue clientele.” Rounding out the list were Hazel Shumate, a traveler, newspaper columnist and freelance photographer; and Ada Shumate, who owned a diagnostic lab that ran tests for other local physicians in California.

Portrait of Mary Morehead Richardson

Prior to her flourishing career as a stylist and designer in New York, Mary Richardson’s path began on a farm in the rural south in Greensboro, North Carolina. Born on July 5, 1898 to parents Richard and Viney Davis Morehead, Mary Morehead was the youngest of many children. She spent her childhood surrounded by nature and animals. At 18 years of age in 1916, Mary Morehead attended the Kent Home industrial school for young women, which would later become Bennett College. She relocated to New Britain, Connecticut following her marriage to Robert A. Richardson in 1921. Eight years later, Mrs. Richardson gave birth to her only daughter, Rena. Upon relocation to New York in 1930, she established a dressmaking business.

Sketch of a dress design for Mary Richardson’s fashion column, “So, Sew Prettily”

Over the next few years, Mrs. Richardson would become the designer and fitter for celebrities and elites such as Princess Grace Kelly Grimaldi, Loretta Young, Sophie Tucker, Barbara “Bobo” Rockefeller and Jules Stein. Juxtaposed with her ascent to success was one episode of particularly devastating misfortune. In 1935, her daughter died at the age of six due to rheumatic fever. Richardson would design and tailor an Easter dress to donate to a child every year thereafter in honor of Rena. Mary Richardson was named editor and contributor of the fashion column, “So, Sew Prettily,” in the Louisville Defender in 1940. Her articles explored a variety of topics that included ways that women could establish autonomy through entrepreneurship as designers and modistes; instructions on how to repurpose one’s wardrobe; and advice on how to invest the savings earned from handmaking household items, in order to navigate the difficulties of inflation in an uncertain economy.

Mary Richardson was one of the first African Americans to maintain full-time residence in the famous Hotel Theresa in Harlem. She loved the arts and extended her home, providing nourishing meals and lodging for itinerant professionals while they were in Harlem for rehearsals or auditions, including Anne Wiggins Brown (Gershwin’s first Bess in Porgy and Bess), and soprano Joy Simpson of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Official invitation for the NAACP National Department of Tours, organized by Mary Richardson, courtesy of Golden Tours of India 1974

Over the years, Mary Richardson established a network of friends, and participated in organizing events, one of which was for the NAACP. She collaborated with the Golden Tours of India to tailor a 29-day excursion to six different countries for the NAACP National Department of Tours in 1974.

Mary Richardson’s fashion column, “So, Sew Prettily,” from the Louisville Defender

She also knew a range of politicians, philanthropists, musicians and writers. One piece of correspondence is from Alex Haley, author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, who is sending well wishes from his travels and reflections on his upcoming eight-year work-in-progress, Roots.

Mary Richardson passed away in her beloved New York City on December 30, 1989.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services [MH-245560-OMS-20]. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

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