Jackie Ormes drew comics for Black newspapers from the 1930s through the 1950s. She was popular and well known, even friends with people like Lena Horne, who might’ve influenced her most famous creation, Torchy Brown, and Eartha Kitt. But Ormes disappeared like so many talented women and men of color do because we don’t make enough of an effort to remember their contributions. So we keep resetting on our own sense of progress, that now we have women writing and drawing comics, that now we are inclusive. So much of this sense of progress relies on forgetting the past because the story of women, especially women of color, doing something amazing and us forgetting repeatedly, isn’t as exciting as the story that we’re living in the most modern, open-minded era, now. So this Black History Month, I’m reading Nancy Goldstein’s book about her life and work, Jackie Ormes: The First African-American Cartoonist (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008) and remembering the amazing Jackie Ormes. And I’m hoping there will be a fancy collection of her comics not too far in the future.
Jackie Ormes was born Zelda Jackson in 1911 in Monongahela, Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh. She got her start as a reporter and cartoonist at The Pittsburgh Courier. Papers like the Courier, The Chicago Defender, The Afro American and The New York Amsterdam News served the African-American community at a time when many newspapers had little interest in reporting on African-Americans or hiring many African-Americans as editors, reporters, photographers or cartoonists. Ormes worked a lot of beats and her irreverent voice is already apparent as she reports on a boxing match in 1930 when she was 19. “It wasn’t a ring at all. It was a square—square as all git out. The sportswriters were sitting around the edges. They were getting splattered. With sweat. It was nasty, and I was enjoying it” (15).
Ormes expanded her role from reporting, writing a women’s column and copy editing to drawing and writing weekly cartoons. In 1937, the Courier started publishing her first Torchy Brown storyline, “Torchy Brown in ‘Dixie to Harlem.” In 1938, Ormes quit the Courier and sent freelance reporting to the Defender and the Afro-American. It might’ve been because she wasn’t paid for Candy or that she felt limited by her opportunities at the Courier. Goldstein notes that Ormes scooped the mainstream white media in reporting on the integration of Naval training commands in 1945 in a piece entitled, “Color Line Ended at Great Lakes [Naval Training Center]” (27-8). Or her contract for the strip might’ve been up and she was ready for new projects. She didn’t return to comics until 1945 when she started drawing Candy for the The Chicago Defender.
Ormes had a lot of projects going on. She continued to submit freelance journalism, including to the Afro-American. Ormes embraced women’s rights and advocated for “better racial understanding” (27) in her society column. She worked hard in the war effort during World War II, supporting both Victory Gardens and the Double V Campaign during her time in Chicago writing for The Chicago Defender.
The Double V Campaign, initiated by the Courier and take up by the Defender and other Black papers, added to America’s ‘V’ sybmol for victory, a call for victory over racism at home. Ormes’ Social Whirl column featured patriotic and interracial topics that backed the ‘Double V’ cause, like soldier’s welcome-home parties and mixed-race wartime fund-raising events (26).
Later in life, Ormes became a passionate environmental advocate and focused in particular on the effect of pollution on African-American communities, and some of this passion is evident in her final strip, Torchy in ‘Heartbeats.’ She was a member of the NAACP starting in the 1940s at about the same time she was drawing Candy (1945) for the Chicago Defender. She worked in the Chicago Urban League’s women’s auxiliary. She was deeply inspired by the example of Eleanor Roosevelt. She was involved in the anti-war movement and she was active in Chicago’s African-American art community during the Chicago Renaissance. And all of this was enough to make J. Edgar Hoover suspicious that maybe Ormes was a member of the Communist Party. The FBI opened a file on Ormes and you can see parts of it in Goldstein’s book. The FBI interviewed Ormes several times between 1952 and 1958, about the same time that she was working on her comics, Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger and Torchy in ‘Heartbeats.’
Hoover’s list of potential subversives put Ormes in excellent company: her complete dossier stands at 287 pages, surpassing baseball star Jackie Robinson’ s 131-page brief, but it is considerably outstripped by Eleanor Roosevelt’s 3,371-page FBI file….Curiously, the FBI file mentions nothing about her cartoons and, in fact, never refers to her artwork (30).
But in her work, Ormes continued to stand up for free speech, equality and take shots at the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. And since we are here for comics, so here’s a brief overview of Ormes’ strips.
“Torchy Brown, who doesn’t know a thing about life but suspects a lot.” A young woman is inspired by the fabulous Dinah Dazzle and the memory of her fashionable and fancy mom to leave her Aunt Clemmie and Uncle Jeff’s farm in Mississippi and move to New York City to make it big at the Cotton Club. “Dixie to Harlem” was a year long narrative strip mixing humor and observations about both the rural South and Harlem at the time as well as issues like passing, segregation and fame. Her work is pretty saucy, with an incidence of side-boob. And there is plenty of late Thirties fashion. Over the course of the strips you can see Ormes’ style and skill develop. Goldstein’s book contains twelve Dixie to Harlem strips recreated from microfilm records. Sadly, some of Ormes’ detail and shading is lost, but it’s so good to have any of this strip at all.
Candy, The Chicago Defender, 1945.
I recently watched a documentary about an 85 year-old African-American jewel thief, Doris Payne, The Life And Crimes Of Doris Payne. Payne is refined and elegant and she targets jewelry stores all over the world, including Monaco. And she’s so much like crime fiction, it’s hard not to get caught up in her narrative of an African-American woman who gets some of her own back by taking diamond rings from Cartier, Bulgari and even Macy’s. If it were fiction, I would totally be on her side. As it is, I’m ambivalent. Candy has some of that pleasure and none of the guilt as she tried on her employer’s dress or notes how much better her quality own cigarettes are than the one’s she rolling for her boss. It’s an inversion of power and wealth and taste that is plenty appealing. Originally intended as an editorial cartoon, or at least published on the editorial page, the comic only lasted four months. But Ormes’ wry rebelliousness and fashionable pin-up sensibilities are well in evidence. As Goldstein describes it: “Candy was a single panel cartoon featuring an attractive housemaid cracking wise about her employer’s chintzy economies and unpatriotic hoarding, all the while outwitting her by appropriating clothes from her closet” (32).
I do appreciate a social commentary and political position that also attacks the status quo’s taste. Maybe that’s what J. Edgar Hoover feared most, an assault on his taste.
The Defender didn’t pay Ormes for the Candy cartoons, and it’s hard to say if she had provided the comics on spec or as a donation, but whatever the case, she pitched Patty-jo ‘n’ Ginger to the Courier, which had fourteen editions published around the country and made Ormes not only the first African-American female syndicated cartoonist, but the first African-American syndicated cartoonist.
Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger. The Pittsburgh Courier, 1945-1956.
Ormes’ longest running cartoon was a single panel gag strip this one about two sisters, one, Patty-Jo, very young and precocious, the other, Ginger, at least in her teens and very fashionable with pin-up style. Having a precocious youngster make wry commentary about the world isn’t uncommon, but it isn’t as common for them to make wisecracks about HUAC, criticize President Harry Truman’s foreign policy and joke about being whistled at by a white tea kettle after the murder of Emmett Till. Of course, there was plenty of everyday and sisterly humor as well. And Patty-Jo served as a model for doll with complete clothing line designed by Ormes at a time when,
most black dolls represented stereotypes, like mammies, dolls advertised as “picaninnies,” and raggedy little boys and girls.”
Jackie Ormes said, “No more. . .Sambos. . .Just KIDS!” and she transformed her attractive, spunky Patty-Jo cartoon character into the first upscale American black doll. At long last, here was an African American doll with all the play features children desired: playable hair, and the finest and most extensive wardrobe on the market, with all manner of dresses, formals, shoes, hats, nightgowns, robes, skating and cowgirl costumes, and spring and winter coat sets, to name a few” (via www.jackieormes.com).
Ormes’ Patty-Jo doll provided Black children with a doll who looked like them and had fashionable clothes to boot. (Personally, I associate the dolls of the Fifties less with fashion than with horror. So thank you for that as well, Ms. Ormes).
Torchy in Heartbeats. Pittsburgh Courier, 1950-4.
Torchy Brown returned to the Courier in 1950 and she returned in full color. In Heartbeats, Torchy’s left entertainment behind. She’s an independent, adventurous young woman with bad luck in love who becomes an environmental and anti-racist activist. Torchy is so high femme she can save herself when almost thrown from a ship during a storm while wearing a floral print strapless dress. Plus, Ormes designed paper dolls and outfits for Torchy in the feature, Torchy’s Togs. Print them out and have Torchy stand up for justice!
Sheen C. Howard & Ronald L. Jackson, eds. Black Comics: The Politics of Race and Representation. (New York: Bloombury, 2013)
Two comics were via Black Then.
Carol Borden really hopes Fantagraphics gets on on this.
This essay was originally published at The Cultural Gutter on Feb. 24, 2016