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The Subtle Radicalism of Cartoonist Jackie Ormes

Shondaland logo Shondaland 3/6/2019 Nadja Sayej
a close up of text on a white background: As the first black woman cartoonist in newspapers, Ormes art was as socially and racially aware as it was entertaining. © Courtesy New Pittsburgh Courier As the first black woman cartoonist in newspapers, Ormes art was as socially and racially aware as it was entertaining.

When the 14-year-old African American boy Emmett Till was lynched in 1955, one cartoonist responded in a single-panel comic. It showed one black girl telling another: "I don't want to seem touchy on the subject... but that new little white tea-kettle just whistled at me!"

It may not seem radical today, but penning such a political cartoon was a bold and brave statement for its time - especially for the artist who was behind it. This cartoon was drawn by Jackie Ormes, the first syndicated African American woman cartoonist to be published in a newspaper. She was known for working between the 1930s and the 1950s for black newspapers like The Pittsburgh Courier and The Chicago Defender (Barbara Brandon-Croft was the first African American woman cartoonist published in the mainstream American press). Ormes was ahead of her time, as she regularly responded to issues that concerned the black community through her art. Despite all her efforts, though, she has only recently garnered some noteworthy accolades.

a close up of a book: Patty-Jo ’n’ Ginger, 1955 © Pittsburgh Courier Patty-Jo ’n’ Ginger, 1955

Ormes was recently inducted into the Will Eisner Comics Hall of Fame - the Hollywood Walk of Fame for cartoonists - 82 years after she started cartooning. A new documentary TV series is being developed to honor the work of Ormes, as well.

"She is finally getting the attention she deserves," says Mora Beauchamp-Byrd, an art history professor at the Oklahoma State University. "Her attention is growing, as a lot of people are trying to deal with issues around race, gender, and class. That's where the shift is coming from."

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Her comics were ripe with social commentary, from environmental concerns to racism and sexism; one shows a black woman on a beach who is being sexually harassed. She slaps the man across the face with the caption: "I said leave me alone!"

Ormes, who grew up in Pittsburgh, got her first break as cartoonist as a teenager. She started working for the Pittsburgh Courier as a sports reporter, then editor, then cartoonist who penned her first comic, Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem, in 1937. It followed a Mississippi teen who becomes a famous singer at the famed Harlem jazz club, The Cotton Club.

"It's the story of the great migration from Mississippi," said Beauchamp-Byrd. "Jackie was on the same pages as male cartoonists who really drew from a male-centered view, she was the only comic who centered one around a female figure."

In 1942, Ormes moved to Chicago, where she drew her most popular cartoon, Patty-Jo 'n' Ginger, which followed two sisters who made sharp political commentary on African American life. In one strip, Patty-Jo says to Ginger: "It would be interestin' to discover WHICH committee decided it was un-American to be COLORED!"

a close up of a book: Patty-Jo ’n’ Ginger comic. © Pittsburgh Courier Patty-Jo ’n’ Ginger comic.

In another, she says: "How's about gettin' our rich Uncle Sam to put good public schools all over so we can be trained fit for any college!"

It was a comic strip where the girls talked about voting rights, McCarthyism, union strikes and segregation. "She was very much in touch with what was going on in the 1940s and 50s," says Beauchamp-Byrd. "She really was documenting the black middle class."

In 1947, Ormes created the Patty-Jo doll, the first black doll that wasn't a mammy doll or a Topsy-Turvy doll. In production for a decade, it was a role model for young black girls.

"The doll was a fashionable, beautiful character," says Daniel Schulman, who curated one of the dolls into a recent Chicago exhibition. "It had an extraordinary presence and power - they're collected today and have important place in American doll-making in the U.S."

Torchy in Heartbeats. © New Pittsburgh Courier Torchy in Heartbeats.

In 1950, Ormes drew her final strip, Torchy in Heartbeats, which followed an independent, stylish black woman on the quest for love - who commented on racism in the South. "Torchy was adventurous, we never saw that with an African American female figure," says Beauchamp-Byrd. "And remember, this is the 1950s."

Ormes was the first to portray black women as intellectual and socially-aware in a time when they were depicted in a derogatory way. "Jackie started the trend which resulted in more humane portrayals and images of African Americans," says Susan Reib, a film producer developing a TV series about the life of Jackie Ormes. "She gave voice to her feelings and her longings and the world around her. That's how she broke barriers, too."

One common mistake that erased Ormes from history is mis-crediting Barbara Brandon-Croft as the first nationally syndicated African-American female cartoonist. "I'm just the first mainstream cartoonist, I'm not the first at all," says Brandon-Croft, who published her cartoons in the Detroit Free Press in the 1990s. "So much of black history has been ignored, it's a reminder that black history shouldn't just be celebrated in February."

The legacy of Ormes lives on, as DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago (where she was a founding board member) is home to many of her artworks. The Ormes Society, too, supports black women cartoonists. Her artwork is collected at the Library of Congress in Washington, which recently included her work in a exhibit of women cartoonists.

As one California comic artist Brittney Williams says, if it wasn't for Ormes, she wouldn't have drawn comics for Marvel. "I was never afraid to follow my dreams because she followed hers against all odds," said Williams. "If a black woman could do it during segregation, I could definitely do it now."

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