Jackie Ormes (1911-1985) was the first Black female cartoonist syndicated across America.
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Hello, from Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.
Today’s journalist was the first Black female cartoonist syndicated across America. She used her cartoons to comment on the political and social issues of her time. Her depiction of beautiful and intelligent, hard-working African Americans contested the historically stereotypical derogatory images of Black people. She was ahead of her time in a male-dominated field. Let’s talk about Jackie Ormes!
Jackie Ormes was born Zelda Mavin Jackson on August 1, 1911, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her parents, William and Mary, nicknamed her Jackie based on her surname. Her father ran a printing company before he was tragically killed in a car accident when Jackie was 6 years old. Afterwards, Jackie and her older sister, Delores temporarily lived with their aunt and uncle, but the girls soon returned to the care of their hard-working single mother.
In her free time, Jackie taught herself how to draw. By the time she got to high school, her art, including her cartoons were featured in the yearbook. During her senior year, Jackie was the arts editor of the yearbook. Her caricatures of teachers and fellow students were highlights of the publication.
Jackie also spent her high school years writing letters to the Pittsburgh Courier, a popular African American Sunday newspaper. Eventually, one of these letters made its way to the editor and he responded with a writing assignment. Jackie was to cover a Joe Lewis boxing match with the sports editor as her chaperone, as she was still just a teenager. Jackie’s coverage was well-received and earned her additional assignments.
After graduating from high school in 1930, Jackie got a job as a proofreader and then an editor and freelance writer for the Pittsburgh Courier. Most of her assignments focused on human interest stories and local police pieces.
When Jackie was 25, she married Earl Ormes. He was a local hotel manager and the two enjoyed a long happy marriage.
After several years as a writer, Jackie transitioned from writing to drawing, and on May 1, 1937, the Courier debuted her first comic strip. The strip, entitled “Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem”, followed the adventures of Torchy Brown, a young, ambitious, Black teen who traveled from Mississippi to New York to pursue her dream of performing in the Big Apple. For many African Americans, the comic was a relatable and accurate depiction of the Great Migration from the South to the North. The comic ran for 12 months before ending in April of 1938. Due to the distribution of the strip across 14 cities around the country, Jackie became the first Black woman to have her cartoons syndicated in the United States.
In 1940, Earl and Jackie moved to Ohio to be closer to Earl’s family. But Ohio and Jackie were not well-matched, so in 1942 the couple moved to Chicago. There, Jackie worked as a columnist for the Chicago Defender and used her platform to voice her progressive views on racism, sexism, and the education system. While at the Defender, Jackie published her next cartoon strip, “Candy”, about a humorous and industrious, quick-witted housemaid. Her mother is said to have been the inspiration for the character.
Jackie used her heroines to strip away the negative stereotypes associated with Black women. They were strong, opinionated, and glamourous, all while confronting the struggles of being Black in America.
Shortly after World War II, the Pittsburgh Courier began to publish Jackie’s work again. Her new strip was called “Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger”. It centered around two sisters, Ginger, the older, elegant sister, and Patty Jo, the wisecracking, insightful little sister. In a famous sketch after the murder of Emmett Till, Jackie had Patty Jo snarkily proclaim, “I don’t want to seem touchy on the subject, but that new white tea-kettle just whistled at me”.
Jackie used her relationship with her sister as a model for Patty Jo and Ginger. Patty Jo’s character was also an important creative outlet for Jackie as she processed the loss of her only child to a brain aneurysm at the age of 3. Using Patty Jo as the mouthpiece, Jackie again commented on pressing issues like segregation and labor laws.
The “Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger” strip was so successful it ran for 11 years with more than 500 cartoons. In collaboration with the Terri Lee Doll Company, Jackie created the Patty-Jo doll in 1947. This was the first nationally distributed high-quality Black doll that had real child-like features and an extensive, upscale wardrobe. The dolls were wildly popular and were the desire of many Black and white children.
In 1950, Jackie revived Torchy in a series called “Torchy in Heartbeats”. The Courier pressured Jackie to match her cartoons with a male writer’s storylines of a meek, dreamy, lovestruck Torchy. But Jackie pushed back. She refused to depict a now grown-up Torchy as anything other than an elegant, strong-willed woman who battled racism as she searched for true love.
In 1954, Jackie was one of the first cartoonists to cover environmental issues. One of her Torchy comics tackled environmental racism through a depiction of a factory polluting the atmosphere with toxic smoke, contaminating the water supply in a Black neighborhood.
Jackie’s comic section was cut as a result of the Courier beginning to use more space for the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. She retired from cartooning in 1956 and switched to painting murals and still lifes. Unfortunately, Jackie had to put down the paintbrush entirely when she developed rheumatoid arthritis. Still, she stayed active in the artist community through her seat on the board of directors of the DuSable Museum of African-American History and Art.
At that point, her husband Earl was managing the famous DuSable Hotel on the South Side of Chicago. Jackie and Earl socialized and formed meaningful friendships with some of the hotel’s renowned guests, including Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughan. Jackie kept herself busy with these friendships and her advocacy work on behalf of the South Side Community Art Center and the Chicago Urban League.
Jackie died of a cerebral hemorrhage on December 26, 1985, at the age of 74. She was posthumously inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame in 2014.
Jackie, as well as her brilliant and brave female protagonists, were an inspiration for many young Black women. They defied expectations of what Black women could do and be, while also giving readers role models for the next generation.
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