Comics Herstory: Jackie Ormes
Born in 1911, Jackie Ormes became the first African American woman cartoonist. She was born in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, and began her journalism career as a proofreader for the Pittsburgh Courier, a newspaper that at one time had the highest circulation of any African-American publication in the U.S.
Ormes’s first comic strip, Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem, ran from 1937-1938. The strip’s title character, Torchy Brown, was a talented singer who found success performing at the Cotton Club in Harlem. Torchy Brown would later return to publication in 1950 as an insert titled Torchy in Heartbeats.
After Ormes moved to Chicago in 1942, she wrote a column for the Chicago Defender and returned to cartooning with a single panel cartoon called Candy, which ran around the time of the end of World War II. In August of 1945, the Pittsburgh Courier began publishing another of Ormes’s single panel cartoons titled Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger, with Patty-Jo’s character written as a wise, socially and politically conscious child and Ginger as her beautiful older sister.
Patty-Jo dolls were produced in 1947, and were the first African-American dolls to have an upscale wardrobe. Though the dolls were only produced for two years, they were one of few examples of positive representation for African-American girls. Torchy Brown also pushed back against stereotypes because she was an independent, confident, and intelligent young woman. Ormes was able to flex her fashion design skills again with Torchy Togs paper dolls, another example of a positive representation of African-American girls. Both Patty-Jo and Ginger’s personalities were written in a way that rebuffed stereotypes of black girls as uneducated and dispelled the racist tropes present in other media. Through Patty-Jo, Ormes addressed the politics of the time: civil rights and racism, the nuclear arms race and McCarthyism, poverty, and environmental issues.
Ormes retired from cartooning in 1956, but her work paved the way for many others. Torchy Brown and Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger, though humorous, were undeniably political. They were also a necessary and important positive portrayal of black girls in an era when positive representation was scarce. Though Ormes passed away in 1985, she was inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame posthumously in 2014, and her legacy lives on.
For more on Jackie Ormes’s life, check out Nancy Goldstein’s recently released biography, Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist, available through the University of Michigan Press here.