- Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist
Nancy Goldstein has rescued an unusual woman from obscurity: Zelda "Jackie" Ormes, the first African American woman cartoonist. Largely interested in dolls and doll history, Goldstein discovered more than she expected while researching dolls in the University of Michigan microfilm room. As she looked up information on Patty-Jo, one of the first realistic black dolls made for the African-American market, she discovered the cartoon character on which she was based, and the cartoonist—Jackie Ormes, creator of Patty-Jo'n Ginger.
Goldstein's goal is clearly stated in the preface: "My objective in writing this book has been to draw greater attention to the life of an extraordinary artist and to present a significant portion of her work, in its historical context, for others to see and enjoy" (ix). While the book is somewhat repetitive, Goldstein meets her goal admirably by mining the archives carefully and explaining the milieu in which Ormes lived and worked.
Ormes (1911–1985) grew up in a small Pennsylvania town near Pittsburgh; her family was relatively prosperous. She practiced drawing early, and published her first cartoons in her high school yearbooks for 1929 and 1930. She knew very early in her life that she wanted to be in the newspaper business, and got a job while in high school doing some minor reporting for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most influential African-American newspapers. After high school she moved to Pittsburgh, where she worked as a proofreader and occasional reporter for the Courier. The relations she built during this period were to prove vital for her career as a cartoonist.
As Goldstein recognizes, Ormes wanted a career in print journalism during a time, the mid-twentieth century, when African American newspapers were central to the construction of black community relations and national agendas. A local black newspaper and one or more of the papers that circulated nationally, such as The Pittsburgh Courier and The Chicago Defender, served many black communities during the height of segregation. The more national newspapers reached the growing literate urbanites among African-Americans, but were also read aloud to the non-literate in the north and the south. The papers often lured readers to their pages with sensational, yellow journalistic articles. At the same time, these papers commented on the politics of the day, both domestic and international. They gave Black communities all over the country the opportunity to discuss topics that ranged from the latest horrible lynching, to the opportunities in the north, to the place of African Americans in World War II. [End Page 548]
Ormes's cartoons were carried prominently in both the Courier and the Defender. Her first cartoon, Torchy Brown in "Dixie to Harlem," appeared in the Pittsburgh Courier from May 1, 1937 to April 30, 1938. A comic strip story, it followed a young Mississippi teen who migrated to New York and found fame and fortune at the well-known Cotton Club. Torchy Brown was followed by Candy, a short-lived (March 24 to July 21, 1945), single panel cartoon that featured a wisecracking domestic worker. Appearing on the editorial page of the Chicago Defender, the cartoon took up serious political issues, often targeting a Mrs. Goldrocks, the employer, who regularly used the wartime black market but who never actually appeared in the comic.
Ormes's longest running cartoon, Patty-Jo 'n Ginger, appeared in the Pittsburgh Courier from October 1945 to October 1956. Goldstein appropriately spends a good deal of time on this cartoon. Patty-Jo was an unusual character for American cartoons. She was stylish, showing up in a new outfit every issue. Usually her sarcastic, even caustic barbs were directed at her older beautiful sister, Ginger, who never had a speaking role but whose facial expressions emphasized Patty-Jo's meaning. Often, Patty-Jo commented on Ginger's never-ending attempt to find a husband. For example, as Ginger puts the phone down...