“What can we tempt you with today?” was the greeting current and potential clients got from Rosemary Reed-Miller when they entered her Toast and Strawberries boutique.
During a memorial service in D.C. this month for Reed-Miller, who died Aug. 3 of ovarian cancer, popular media personality Vera Avery Brown remembered the entrepreneur as “a friend” and “a black role model.”
“She tempted many and in many forms of fashion and couture,” Avery-Brown said during the Aug. 23 service at the Washington Ethical Society.
Rosemary Ellinstine Reed was born in Yeadon, Pennsylvania, and graduated from Philadelphia’s Temple University. In 1964 she came to Washington with her husband, Paul E. Miller, a former law school dean at Howard University, and worked as an information officer for the Department of Agriculture for two years before opening Toast and Strawberries.
When her husband died suddenly at age 38 in 1974, the responsibility fell to Rosemary to support and raise their family. Reed-Miller followed her interest in fashion design and opened Toast and Strawberries, an ethnocentric boutique overlooking Dupont Circle at the intersection of Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire Avenues and P and 19th Streets in northwest D.C. The location and neighborhood were historic. Independence Federal Bank and Toast and Strawberries were successful black businesses along that commercial corridor.
Reed-Miller presented Washington-area blacks “swagger” for their cultural and haute couture tastes. She had great cachet among Washington’s African-Americans, gaining favor among them with her media savvy from years of writing for the Philadelphia Tribune, Amsterdam News, Washington Afro-American, The Washington Informer, Washington Post and Washington Star newspapers.
Toast and Strawberries emerged as Washington became “the place” for young black professionals. From her opening in 1966, Reed-Miller presented fashions not found in department stores, and for generations, she catered to the gentrification and increasing tastes of Washington men and women, stocking unique African and Caribbean designs for them. The store, which began as a showroom where Miller housed her designer clients’ wares, eventually morphed into a Dupont Circle fixture.
In 1981, Reed-Miller was named the District’s “Small Business Person for the Year” and also served as a delegate to the White House Conference on Small Business. Former D.C. Chamber of Commerce President Malcolm Beech called her “a black business role model.” She was listed in the 1984 edition of Who’s Who in Black Corporate America.
In late 2005, soaring rent prices forced Reed-Miller to close the business, but it left a legacy of providing timely and tasteful clothing and home accessories in addition to a haven for civic and social groups to hold poetry readings, book signings, business seminars and fashion shows.
Reed-Miller was also an advocate for African-American women entrepreneurs. At the Aug. 23 service, Georgetown Bank’s Jeffery Banks called her “a strong businesswoman.”
In 2013 Reed-Miller’s spoke publicly about her stage 4 ovarian cancer diagnosis in order to raise awareness of the disease. After learning of her diagnosis, later that year Reed-Miller threw a party, inviting friends, family members and cancer survivors to talk about ovarian cancer. Before her death, Reed-Miller started a program on African-American women’s contributions to design. Her research on this subject led to her book, “Threads of Time, The Fabric of History: Profiles of African American Dressmakers and Designers, 1850 to the Present.” The book’s proceeds will be devoted to ovarian cancer research.
Survivors include her longtime partner, John Howard; two children from her marriage, Sabrina Miller of Washington and Paul Miller of New York, and three grandchildren.
William Reed is publisher of “Who’s Who in Black Corporate America” and available for projects via Busxchng@his.com.