Jackie Ormes was born Mavin Jackson on August 1, 1911, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her father, William Winfield Jackson, died in a car accident and her mother, Mary Brown, remarried soon thereafter. Jackson and her older sister, Delores, ultimately relocated to Monongahela.
While living in Monongahela, Jackson and her sister pursued creative outlets. Delores became a recording vocalist for Decca Records and young Zelda was interested in illustrating. She was asked to create illustrations for the Monongahela High School yearbook while in her junior and senior years.
While still in high school, Jackson earned the nickname, Jackie, which was a shortened version of her last name. She married a man named Earl Clark Ormes in 1931, thus her last name. The couple later moved to Salem, Ohio in order to live with family members after suffering financial hardships as a result of the Great Depression.
Ormes applied to the Black-owned weekly newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier where she began working as a reporter and proofreader. In May of 1937, her comic strip, ‘Torchy Brown in “Dixie to Harlem” debuted and was run for an entire year.
Ormes’ character, Torchy Brown, was a woman who traveled from Mississippi to Harlem in order to become a singer at the famous Cotton Club. As a result of her cartoon strip, Ormes became the first Black woman to work as a professional newspaper cartoonist.
The Ormes family then moved to Chicago, Illinois. Ormes enrolled in courses at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and wrote a society column for the Chicago Defender during the 1940s. While writing for the Defender, Ormes created her next big cartoon, ‘Candy.’ This story followed a witty domestic worker and ran for four months.
In late 1945, Ormes returned to the Pittsburgh Courier. She created her most famous comic, titled ‘Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger.’ Patty-Jo was known for her political commentary, which could be inflammatory at times. The cartoon ran for 11 years. Patty-Jo’s notoriety prompted Ormes to collaborate with the Terri Lee Company in order to create a Patty-Jo doll.
Ormes’ characters were strong women who voiced their opinion regarding political issues. After her ‘Patty-Jo’ cartoon series ended in 1956, Ormes turned to activism. It was believed that she was a member of the Communist Party, causing the FBI to create a file on her. She was not affiliated with the Communist Party.
Later in life, Ormes developed rheumatoid arthritis. As a result of her ailment, she was unable to continue drawing. Jackie Ormes suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died on December 26, 1985. She was 74 years old.
In 2008, the University of Michigan Press published a book about her life, titled ‘Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist.’ Her papers are on display at the DuSable Museum of African American History, which she helped found.
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