Jackie Ormes’s clever and often not-so subtle politically-charged cartoons appeared in now legendary Black newspapers like the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier from the 1930s through the 1950s, making her the first African-American woman to have a career as a cartoonist. Born Zelda Mavin Jackson to a middle-class family in Pittsburgh in 1911, Ormes created popular comic strips like Torchy in Heartbeats and Patty-Jo ‘n Ginger, which gave her the platform to defy persistent derogatory images of black women and children.
A fixture of Chicago’s social scene, she wrote a social column for a short time for the Chicago Defender and was acquainted with celebrities like Duke Ellington and Eartha Kitt. However, it was her leftist affiliations and friendships that caught the attention of the F.B.I., which amassed a 287-page file on her with nary a mention of her cartoons, even when they contained biting political commentary. In one strip that took on the House of Un-American Activities Committee, young Patty-Jo deadpanned, “It would be interestin’ to discover WHICH committee decided it was un-American to be COLORED!” A 1955 Patty-Jo ‘n Ginger strip subtly addressed the murder of 14-year-old Emmitt Till.
In her 1950s comic strip Torchy in Heartbeats, beautiful Torchy Brown battled racial injustice and environmental issues as she navigated adventure and romance. In the final installment of the series in 1954, Torchy and her beau, Dr. Paul Hammond confront a racist factory owner responsible for polluting a town and making its people sick.
Patty-Jo ‘n Ginger inspired the creation of the Patty-Jo doll, an upscale, brown-skinned doll that was a direct contrast to the Black dolls of the day that depicted Black children as raggedy “pickaninnies.” There were also paper doll cut-outs of Torchy Brown, which showed her glamorous side.
Although she retired from creating comic strips in the late 1950s, Ms. Ormes continued to lead a productive, interesting life as a fundraiser and one of the founding board of directors of the DuSable Museum of African-American History. She died at age 74 in 1985.
Nichelle Gainer is a beauty, fashion and lifestyle writer whose work has appeared in magazines and websites including GQ, InStyle, Glamour, Newsweek.com and Essence.com. She is currently working on the book version of Vintage Black Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter at @VintageBlkGlam