The newspaper industry of mid-20th century America offered precious few opportunities for women, still less for women of colour. This made Jackie Ormes’ achievement as a successful black female cartoonist all the more remarkable.
Born Zelda Jackson in Pennsylvania in 1911, Jackie began her career in print as a proof-reader for the Pittsburgh Courier, a weekly African-American newspaper. Between 1937 and 1938 the paper published her comic strip, Dixie to Harlem, which featured the formidable character, Torchy Brown, a young black woman from Mississippi who moves to New York to become the singing star of the Cotton Club. The strip was soon featured in fifteen black newspapers across the country, making Jackie the first ever black female syndicated cartoonist in America. In fact, she remained the only black female cartoonist to have been syndicated in the USA until the 1990s.
Her work was unique and wholly unprecedented. Not only were her lead characters female, they were strong, elegant, intelligent, urbane, opinionated and witty and often leading extremely glamorous and cultured lives. It has been said that they were very like the artist herself. They challenged the derogatory caricatures of black people, and especially black women, which usually appeared in comics at that time.
Jackie was entirely self-taught as an artist. Her cartoons were slick, clever and funny but had a fiercely satirical edge. She was left-wing in her views and used her work to comment on political and social issues. She frequently tackled topics such as racism, sexism, labour laws and education. She even took on McCarthyism.
In a famous Torchy Brown strip, the eponymous heroine decides not to sit in the ‘coloured’ section of the train but pretends she cannot read the sign on the white-only compartment, taking her seat inside it. Following the murder of Emmett Till, a black teenager who had apparently angered his assailant by flirting with a white woman, Jackie’s young character, Patty-Jo, declares, “I don’t want to seem touchy on the subject, but that new white tea-kettle just whistled at me”.
Jackie was the first ever cartoonist to highlight environmental issues, especially as they tended to affect black neighbourhoods. In one particular strip, she depicted a factory filling the atmosphere with acrid smoke and polluting the local water supply through its drainage system.
In 1936, Jackie married Earl Ormes, a hotel manager, with whom she enjoyed a happy marriage. The couple moved to Chicago in 1942 and Jackie soon became an important figure in African-American society there. She began writing as a columnist for the Chicago Defender, one of the USA’s leading black newspapers, and her cartoon strip, Candy, about a smart and wise-cracking housemaid, also appeared in the paper for a run of several months.
By the end of the Second World War, Jackie’s work was back in the Pittsburgh Courier. This time with a new single-panel strip called Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger. It featured a big sister / little sister duo with Ginger being the elegant and beautiful older sister, and Patty Jo the precocious and outspoken younger sister, who was also solely responsible for narration. It ran for eleven years.
The strip’s popularity led to the Terri Lee Doll Company producing a Patty-Jo doll in 1947. It was the first American black doll to have an extensive line of clothes and, unlike similar products which tended to be gross caricatures, it represented a real child. They sold in their thousands and today are sought-after collectors’ items.
In 1950, Torchy Brown made a come-back when the Pittsburgh Courier launched an eight-page full colour comic insert. In her new strip, Heartbeats, Torchy was as brave and confident as ever. Although the strip was ostensibly about Torchy’s search for romance, she still provided a vehicle through which Jackie could express her political views.
Jackie retired from cartoon-production in 1956, but she continued to move and work in artistic circles, producing murals, portraits and still life. She also served on the board of directors of the DuSable Museum of African-American History and Art. She died of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1985 and was posthumously inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame.
At a time when America’s media depicted the black population in a generally derogatory way, Jackie Ormes challenged the status quo, flouted the stereotypes and provided bright and brilliant role models in her work. She was an inspiration, a trailblazer and an incredible agent of change.