Jackie Ormes was the first known and syndicated black woman cartoonist who brought black images and characters to the American funny papers. It was Ormes’ characters that would express the “power of black,” decades before it was openly addressed in mainstream society. Though carrying blatant messages, her characters were elegant and classy.
Born Zelda Mavin Jackson, Jackie Ormes was best known for her 1930’s comic strip, “Dixie to Harlem” starring the character Torchy Brown. Torchy was a sassy Mississippi teen who became a star at New York’s Cotton Club.
“Dixie to Harlem” was the predecessor to Ormes’ second cartoon, “Patti Jo N’ Ginger”, which ran for 11 years, between 1945 and 1956. The outspoken characters of the strip were two sisters, one of which spoke of racial inequality. “Patti Jo N’ Ginger” was syndicated with the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender, reaching more than 350,000 people. Though successful, Ormes’ strong political messages caused her to be secretly investigated by the government for communism for 10 years.
It was only fitting that Ormes would bring her characters to the toy shelves. She was approached by the Terri Doll Company to develop a black baby doll based on her Patty Jo character. The Patty Jo doll was the first black doll to have a full upscale wardrobe. Just like her cartoon, the doll represented a real child and was unlike most black dolls at the time, which were mammy-type or generic baby dolls.
Jackie Ormes’ big finale was seen in her reinvention of Torchy called “Torchy in Heartbeats” for the courier. The last episode was in 1954, when Torchy and her doctor boyfriend presented opinions on racism and environmental pollution in America.