I spent a lot of time drawing as a kid. My collection boasts a display of Bettys and Veronicas, and several other comic favorites from a childhood spent reading voraciously in my bedroom – and during class.
I never went on to further explore illustration, opting to expand my interests primarily in the art of writing, but a curious seven-year-old me would probably wonder why her older-self would bench a pastime so empowering and creatively fulfilling.
Granted, personal interests are ever-evolving, but I will say that there’s great inspiration in seeing your interests fulfilled by someone with whom you can identify. For many young, black females during the 1930s to mid-1950s, Jackie Ormes instilled a sense of pride, racial uplift, and the importance of personal advancement through her spunky, often satirical, comic strips. Ormes’s characters, though relatable, were attuned to society’s ills and committed to fighting injustice.
Jackie Ormes, born Zelda Mavin Jackson, was the first, and only, black female cartoonist up until the 1990s. Born in 1911 in a small town outside of Pittsburgh, Ormes went on to begin her career as a proofreader at the Pittsburgh Courier, a weekly black newspaper.
In 1937, Ormes began featuring her comic character, Torchy Brown, in her very own comic strip called “Dixie to Harlem,” which ran from May 1, 1937 to April 30, 1938. Torchy Brown was a young woman from Mississippi who sought out stardom and found fame as an entertainer for New York City’s Cotton Club. Ormes emphasized the struggles shared by many black people relocating from the South to the North during late 1930s through “Dixie to Harlem” with a hint of satire, humor, and adventure.
Seven years later, Ormes moved to Chicago. Her work began appearing in the Chicago Defender in a single panel cartoon called “Candy,” a comic focused on a funny housemaid. “Candy,” set during World War II, ran for about four months. Like her previous work, Ormes focused on entertaining her audience with Candy’s wisecracking jokes, but encouraged readers to strive for better in their lives.
Ormes made the decision to return to the Courier after Candy’s run, introducing a new comic strip that would become her longest, most popular collection. The new comic featured two sisters, Patty Jo and Ginger: Patty Jo, the pint-sized narrator, and Ginger, the older, wiser sister. The big-sis/little-sis dynamic made for excellent commentary about domestic life, and often read like a political satire or a protest of racial injustice.
During the “Patty Jo ‘n’ Ginger” run, Ormes also teamed up with the Terri Lee Doll Company to create a doll made to look like the Patty Jo character. Ormes sought out to create a doll that would reinforce a positive image for young black girls. The Patty Jo doll instilled a sense of pride and self-love for many black girls, because she was unlike the mammy and maid dolls that were common for that era. She was well-dressed and well-coiffed, and empowered many young black girls to see beauty and strength in their reflection.
Later on, Ormes created a comic strip called “Torchy in Heartbeats,” an eight-page spread for the Courier. This spread featured a fashionable role model female character who tackled issues like sexism, racism, and environmental pollution. Ormes continued “Torchy in Heartbeats” until 1956.
After she retired from cartooning, Ormes remained active in the art community, serving on the founding Board of Directors of the DuSable Museum of African-American Art and History. Ormes also continued to create art in the form of painted murals and portraits. She died in Chicago on January 2, 1986, but her work continues to keep dreams alive for many young, aspiring black female cartoonists and illustrators.