Doll with a Call: A Tribute to Jackie Ormes

Zelda Mavin Jackson (a.k.a., Jackie Ormes) drawing Torchy Brown, from the collection of Judie Miles

Drawn to art

By the early 1900s, Pittsburgh had established itself as a manufacturing powerhouse brimming with economic opportunity for potential settlers. Living up to its nickname, The Gateway to the West, the city became an attractive destination for immigrants and African Americans seeking work in mills and factories.¹ While the prototype of a thriving metropolis was forming, a sweet black girl by the name of Zelda Mavin Jackson (a.k.a., Jackie Ormes), was drafting a prototype of her own.

Courier of opportunity

After high school, Ormes wasted no time pursuing her dream in cartooning. She understood early on that if she wanted to reach her ultimate destination of cartoons, she would likely need to make a pit stop at journalism. Ormes reached out to Robert Vann, editor of the premier African American newspaper in town at the time: The Pittsburgh Courier. Ensuing conversations led to her first writing assignment with the newspaper, in which she covered a boxing match, becoming a fan of the sport in the process.

Earliest available edition of the Pittsburgh Courier, circa November 1910 (Source: Unknown)

Cartoon chronicles

After several successful publications with the Pittsburgh Courier, Ormes was finally granted her first comic strip assignment in the May 1, 1937 edition of the newspaper. On this date, readers across the fourteen-city Courier network were introduced to a Southern, teenage entertainer searching for fame in the esteemed Harlem nightclub, Cotton Club. ³ ⁴ Although Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem enjoyed a relatively short run in the newspaper, the protagonist would return years later in another Ormes classic.

Jackie Ormes’ “Torchy Brown in ‘Dixie to Harlem’”, from the Sam Milai Collection, The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum
The Patty-Jo doll by Jackie Ormes. Photograph: Courtesy of Nancy Goldstein

Tracing the times

Many artists reach a point in their career when they must decide whether to continue frolicking by the dock of social discourse or to dive headfirst into the messy torrent of issues. While each side holds merit of its own, the latter often makes for a less comfortable life. Yet, with each publication, you could reliably find Ormes somersaulting deep into the center. She had a strong grasp of the times she found herself in. Her very first comic, Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem, is testament to this, as Torchy’s journey from Mississippi to New York City mirrored the route taken by scores of African Americans who advanced northward during the Great Migration. ³ ⁴

Patty-Jo ’n’ Ginger protest panel on the killing of Emmett Till (Source: Pittsburgh Courier, 1955)

Breaking the mold

In a time when black women were often depicted as unintelligent, clumsy, Mammy-like caricatures with big lips and bandanas, Ormes’s characters offered a refreshing alternative to this image. Patty-Jo encouraged young black girls to be themselves unapologetically. She taught them that hidden injustice ought to be exposed in one fell swoop. And in Ginger, readers found a young, beautiful, slim, college-educated woman often depicted in a pinup style. She represented a new beauty standard that young black women could aspire to reach. ⁷

Torchy Togs, a paper doll topper strip associated with the Torchy in Heartbeats series (Source: Pittsburgh Courier)
Final publication of Torchy in Heartbeats series addressing racism and environmental injustice (Source: Pittsburgh Courier, September 18, 1954)

A lasting image

Ormes paved the way for several black women cartoonists. The most notable figure of this group is Barbara Brandon-Croft. Generally celebrated as the first nationally syndicated African American female cartoonist, Brandon-Croft insists that “I’m just the first mainstream cartoonist, I’m not the first at all.” ⁴

Jackie Ormes tribute, (Source: Liz Montague, Google Doodle, September 1, 2020)

References

  1. A Brief History of Pittsburgh — https://popularpittsburgh.com/history-pittsburgh
  2. Cartoonist Zelda Ormes inducted into NABJ Hall of Fame — https://amsterdamnews.com/news/2014/01/23/cartoonist-zelda-ormes-inducted-nabj-hall-fame
  3. Jackie Ormes — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jackie_Ormes
  4. The Subtle Radicalism of Cartoonist Jackie Ormes — https://www.shondaland.com/live/a26668329/jackie-ormes-comic-radicalism
  5. Black and White and Color — https://web.archive.org/web/20081210195123/http://www.comixology.com/articles/96/Black-and-White-and-Color
  6. Fifty Years Before Boondocks There Was Patty-Jo ’n’ Ginger — https://slate.com/human-interest/2013/08/patty-jo-n-ginger-the-ground-breaking-african-american-cartoon-of-the-1940s.html
  7. Comics Crusader: Remembering Jackie Ormes — https://www.npr.org/2008/07/29/93029000/comics-crusader-remembering-jackie-ormes
  8. Comic Book Legends Revealed #470 — https://web.archive.org/web/20140513011437/http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2014/05/09/comic-book-legends-revealed-470/2
  9. Torchy Brown Film Project — https://www.torchybrown.com
  10. Celebrating Jackie Ormes — https://www.google.com/doodles/celebrating-jackie-ormes

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Kayode Ezike

Kayode Ezike

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