Updated on December 10, 2021
This week’s minorities in cartoons entry is Jackie Ormes. Ormes is the first African-American woman to become a syndicated cartoonist.
Born in the Pittsburgh area in 1911, Ormes eventually went to work for the weekly African-American newspaper, the “Pittsburgh Courier.” There, she drew her first comic strip, “Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem.” Torchy was a beautiful young African-American woman who set out from the South to New York, wanting to make it big at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem. Unlike the degrading mainstream depictions of African-Americans at the time, Torchy managed to avoid the era’s stereotypes. “Torchy Brown” ran from 1937 to 1938.
During World War II, Ormes worked for the “Chicago Defender,” where a single panel comic, “Candy” (about an attractive, wise-cracking housekeeper) briefly ran.
In 1945, Ormes once again was working for the “Courier,” and started a new single panel comic, “Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger.” It starred an outspoken, politically-aware girl named Patty-Jo and her older sister Ginger. The comic ran for 11 years, and often addressed the issues of the day (civil rights, McCarthyism, etc.).
“Patty-Jo” also subverted the usual stereotypical images of African-American girls and women at the time. Ginger, like Torchy, looked thin, well-dressed, and attractive. Meanwhile, Patty-Jo looked like, well, a normal child.
A Patty-Jo doll was produced from 1947 to 1949. It was of the first non-stereotypical African-American dolls with a sizable wardrobe.
In 1950, the “Courier” began running color comics; Ormes revived Torchy in the strip “Torchy in Heartbeats.” Now an adult, Torchy spent her time seeking both adventure and romance with her doctor boyfriend. She also combated various evils, such as (in the final storyline in 1954) pollution and racism. A series of “Torchy Togs” paper dolls was also produced.
Ormes’ political commentary and activism (including leftist causes) caught the attention of the FBI, who amassed a 287-page file on her—none of which mentioned her cartooning, oddly.
On a more positive note, Ormes also caught the attention of a Black-owned newsreel company in the early 1950s. She was featured in a documentary on then-famous African-Americans.
There’s not much information I could find on the newsreel company. Its owner’s Wikipedia page states they made newsreels and other films for Black audiences in the 1940s and 50s.
After her strips ended, Ormes retired from cartooning, and spent her time painting various artwork (including murals and portraits), staying active in her community, and collecting dolls. Ormes passed away in 1985. The National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame posthumously inducted her in 2014.
Ormes’ work has received more attention in recent years. Ormes has been the focus of stories on NPR and on several websites.
Her life story and work were collected in a 2008 hardcover book titled “Jackie Ormes: The First African-American Woman Cartoonist.”