This month’s Kickass Women features Zelda Jackson (Jackie) Ormes, the first Black woman to be a professional cartoonist. Her cartoon strips discussed racism and sexism as well as fashion, dating, and family.
Ormes was born in Pittsburgh in 1911. Her father died when she was six and she was raised by an aunt and uncle and, later, by her mother and stepfather. She launched her professional career as a sports reporter, proofreader and freelance news reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American newspaper.
Ormes’ first comic strip was Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem. In this strip, Torchy Brown, a fashionable Black woman from Mississippi heads to Harlem in hopes of becoming a singer. The strip covered fashion and men, but also racism, sexism, and the problems facing so many African-Americans who headed North during the time of the Great Migration.
Torchy was independent, intelligent, and glamorous. The strip was published across the country in African-American papers from 1937 – 1938, and came back in 1950 as part of a trend of romance comics. Readers could enjoy the strip and “Torchy’s Togs,” a paper doll with a variety of outfits.
In 1945, Ormes launched Patty-Jo ‘n Ginger, a single panel comic (like The Far Side or Family Circus). This was about a little girl (Patty-Jo) and her big sister (Ginger). Ormes used the unfiltered mind of a child to voice piercing questions about racism and sexism, as well as about the Red Scare. Ormes herself was investigated by the FBI because of the opinions expressed in her comics as well as her other activism.
Patty-Jo was so popular that Ormes was able to contract with a toy company to make a Patty-Jo doll. She (the doll) was realistic, as opposed to the caricature-type dolls on the market, and Patty-Jo had a clothing collection. She even had ice skates. She was the first Black doll to have a wardrobe.
Ormes married Earl Ormes in 1931. They had one child, a daughter, who died at the age of three. Her husband managed the DuSable Hotel in Chicago. The Ormes’ supported the arts through fundraisers and other events and Jackie was a founding member of the board of the DuSable Museum of African American History. She died at the age of 74 in 1985.
She Changed Comics, edited by Betsy Gomez and Presented by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
“The Subtle Radicalism of of Cartoonist Jackie Ormes,” Nadja Sayej, Shondaland.com
“Jackie Ormes: The First Professional African American Woman Cartoonist,” Uchenne Edeh, kentakepage.com
“Jackie Ormes: The First Professional African American Woman Cartoonist,” Nancy Goldtein, museumofuncutfunk.org