by R. Asmerom
The cartoon industry is a rare industry for anyone to be in, but especially a black woman in the 1930s. A new book by Nancy Goldstein called “Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist” paints a profile of the first black woman cartoonist, who used her art to work in journalism and engage in politics from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Ormes started as a proofreader for the weekly African-American paper the Pittsburgh Courier. She launched a strip there called Torchy Browin In Dixie To Harlem about a Southern teen who was a success in the Cotton Club.
She later moved to Chicago to work for the popular Black newspaper Chicago Defender. There she started Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger, a cartoon that ran for 11 years. Her political voice was consistently heard during her tenure. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
During the McCarthy era, she repeatedly took playful jabs in her cartoons at the House Un-American Activities Committee. Delivered with much humor and gusto, the barbs were often spoken by an adorable little girl named Patty-Jo, who always had a way of summing up all that her older, more fashionable sister, Ginger, remained silent about while expressing a look of utter shock that her little sister could say such a thing as:
“It would be interestin’ to discover WHICH committee decided it was un-American to be COLORED!”
Ornes didn’t escape the watchful eye of the vigilant FBI during that time, reportedly being closely watched by the agency for ten years because of some attendance at meetings for American communist groups. She admitted to attending meetings but denied being part of the Communist movement.
According to the book, Ornes used her cartoons to lobby for The March of Dimes and to protest segregation and American foreign policy. Besides her sophisticated political voice, Ornes was known for her elegant depictions.
She often used her own quite charming and beautiful form as the model for her main characters such as Ginger and Torchy Brown, who are downright glamorous — in such a manner not before seen in graphic art depictions of African-American women.
Ormes died at the age of 74 in 1985. She was well ahead of her time. As the New York Times noted, the first daily strip to be produced by a Black woman emerged in 1989 by Barbara Brandon-Croft – obviously decades later after Ormes made her mark.