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  • Writer's pictureKelly Sue DeConnick

March 2nd: Jackie Ormes

Updated: Mar 3

“The First African-American Woman Cartoonist”

Jackie Ormes’ legacy is one of a brilliant cartoonist, breaking barriers and inspiring generations of young Black women to defy the expectations of their detractors.

Born Zelda Mavin Jackson on August 1, 1911, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Jackie Ormes was only six when her father--an entrepreneur with a printing company and a movie theater--died in a tragic car accident.

Blessed with her father's drive, Ormes stoked her passion for writing and drawing in high school and soon began a career in journalism. She started as a proofreader for the Pittsburgh Courier, but her heart was set on drawing.

Ormes realized her dream of becoming a cartoonist in 1937 with the debut of Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem. The strip depicted the journey of an African-American teen from the South moving to the North during the Great Migration. The Courier was an African-American newspaper and Ormes crafted Torchy's adventures with a sense of humor that resonated with the papers many readers at the time.

Torchy Brown was so popular it went national, making Ormes the first African-American woman to do such a thing. Ormes' impact on comic book history doesn't stop with Torchy Brown, though. Ormes later created Candy, about a clever maid employed by an absent white woman, and the Patty-Jo 'n' Ginger strip, centered on the banter of two witty and very different sisters. Ormes collaborated with the Terri Lee doll company to produce the Patty-Jo doll, a significant departure from the mammy and Topsy-type Black dolls of the time.

Ormes’ work is characterized by its portrayal of dynamic, independent women who defy stereotypes and directly address contemporary issues, offering readers paths to do the same.

Of course, her influence extends beyond comics as well. She used her platform to tackle important social and political issues ranging from race to environmental pollution*. After retiring from cartooning in 1956, Ormes’ remained active in her community, investing her time, money, and influence as founding member of the board of directors for the DuSable Museum of African American History.

Ormes was a trailblazer who shattered racial and gender barriers, becoming a symbol of empowerment for readers and artists alike. Her work continues to inspire us and her life story stands as a testament to the enduring impact of diversity and inclusion in the world of comics.

Further reading:

*Post World War II, her dedication to humanitarian causes predictably led to an FBI investigation of her left-wing ideologies.

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