RALEIGH, N.C. — For generations, any woman in who owned a dress made by Willie Otey Kay owned an heirloom, a coveted gem, a treasure beyond price.
Throughout much of the 20th century in North Carolina, the black seamstress worked in silk, satin and lace to design original wedding and debutante gowns worn by wealthy white women and by Kay's black neighbors, too. Mothers handed them down to daughters, sometimes bringing them back for Kay to modify — such as a debutante dress that later became a bridal gown.
But white or black, even in the years of Jim Crow racial oppression, you could only be a client of the gifted seamstress if she accepted you.
Yet her legacy is not solely woven of needle and thread. Kay's son-in-law and daughter, Ralph and June Campbell, were civil rights activists who braved violence to raise another generation of activists. Otey's home in Raleigh was often a refuge for her grandchildren, when their own home was endangered by bomb threats. Her grandson Bill Campbell was the first black child to integrate Wake County schools in 1961 and later became mayor of Atlanta. Another grandson, Ralph Campbell Jr., became the first black to hold statewide executive office when he was elected state auditor in 1992.
"She saw difficult times," said granddaughter Mildred Christmas, recalling hecklers who lined the street as Bill walked to and from school. "But Granny had an easy spirit about her, a kind heart. ... She had a wonderful life."
Now, Christmas' own Willie Kay-designed wedding dress of satin, lace and tulle with beading and a train that starts at the shoulders is among a collection of Kay gowns on display in an exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of History.
The exhibit, titled "Made Especially for You by Willie Kay," tells the story of a woman whose talents transcended the clear racial boundaries of her day.
The exhibit includes 10 of Kay's dresses with three short-term displays of more dresses loaned by individuals. In the first rotation was a wedding dress that Cathryn Cheek Zevenhuizen estimates has been worn eight times, starting with her sister in 1953. Zevenhuizen said she wore it herself in 1957.
The satin dress with a 12-foot train most recently was worn in 1996, the one time it had to be altered, she said.
Zevenhuizen said Otey also made the debutante dress that both of her daughters wore.
"She was just so low-key and pleasant and refined," Zevenhuizen said — and added that she had no idea Kay's life was touched by civil rights-era turmoil, such as the bomb threats at the home of Kay's daughter.
That same home where beautiful gowns were created also was a safe house for her grandchildren when their home was threatened, Christmas recalled. "Whites would come by for dresses during the day, and at night, we went to her home until we thought it was safe to go home," Christmas said.
Kay's father, Henry Otey, a barber whose all-white clientele included some of the local white supremacists, referred his clients to his daughter.
"It seems very contradictory looking back at it," said Diana Kite-Bell, curator of the museum exhibit. "But people had all sorts of personal relationships that don't really make a lot of sense historically when looking at the decisions they made on a large scale."
Kay was born in 1894 during an era when hard-fought gains by blacks during Reconstruction were being swept away. When she was just 4, white Democrats in Wilmington staged a coup d'etat and ran blacks and Republicans out of the port. Yet that was where she moved when she married and where her husband co-founded a blacks-only hospital. When he died in 1927, she returned to Raleigh and set up her dressmaking business. She died in 1992 at the age of 98.
She worked without patterns, designing dresses based on pictures from high-end design houses or drawings from clients. She divided her time for debutante balls between blacks and whites, choosing an equal number from each group, Kite-Bell said.
Kay made a debutante dress for Marion Jervay, whose family was friends with the Kays, then later transformed it into a wedding dress by adding a long train. Her dress also had extensive beadwork along the hem, on the front of the skirt, and along the shoulders and bodice.
"I was a string bean at that point," Jervay said, so an empire waist worked well on her figure. "She would sit down with you and if you had an idea, she would say yes or no and guide you through the process. She knew intuitively what would look good on you."
N.C. Museum of History: http://bit.ly/1Q8OMAf