Ormes’ story is a fascinating one. Born of a middle-class family in 1911, she went to what appears to have been an integrated high school and was tapped to do art work for her senior yearbook. After graduating in 1930, she worked as a freelance reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier—she appeared to enjoy covering boxing matches—and by 1937 she had begun drawing her first comic strip, which chronicled the journey of a young southern black woman, Torchy Brown, to the big city in the north. Torchy’s story only ran for a year, and it was seven years before Ormes returned to comics, in 1945, with a single-panel comic called Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger. Ginger was a stylish and shapely young woman, bearing—one feels—a strong resemblance to Ormes herself; Patty-Jo was her sassy and strong-minded younger sister. Each week, Patty-Jo would let loose some sort of pronouncement to an often oblivious and always silent Ginger. These pronouncements might be as innocuous as your average Family Circus panel, but more often they reflected Ormes’ own concerns and interests, as well as the events of the day.
Ormes was a staunch supporter of the March of Dimes and of the right to vote, and both issues saw plenty of play and support in her weekly cartoon. In the 1948 panel above (click image for full-sized view), which ran about a week before the presidential election, Patty-Jo comments on the hot topic of racial inequality in the year’s political campaigns: Goldstein notes that Harry Truman had been flogging his civil rights cred (he had just integrated the military with Executive Order 9981), Thomas Dewey was running ads in the Courier itself promising “citizenship for all,” and Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats were in the vanguard of segregation protection, for the sake of “the integrity of each race,” of course. Ormes pulled no punches, and didn’t shy away from addressing critical events in the African-American experience: the 1955 cartoon below, in which Patty-Jo refers to a white boy whistling at her like a tea-kettle, appeared six weeks after the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, beaten to a pulp in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman. Maybe discussing Ormes’ development along with the history of the song “Strange Fruit” isn’t such a stretch after all.
The Patty Jo character went on to become this nation’s first positive image ‘Negro’ character doll that hit the toy stores in time for Christmas (1948). The Patty Jo dolls are now collector’s items. In the late 70s, arthritis limited her artistic work, however Ormes remained a serious artist, painting murals, portraits (specializing in children’s faces) & panels that decorated her home. She was also a passionate doll collector & member of the Chicago Chapter of the United Federation of Doll Clubs. In the 1950’s as her arthritis became worse, doll collecting began.
Retiring from cartooning in the 1960s Ormes had approximately 150 dolls, including a German-made doll, which was the predecessor to the Barbie of today. The oldest in her collection was 50 years old. Ormes was celebrated in Chicago’s black social & fashion circles. She was also on the board of directors of the DuSable Museum of African-American History and Art. Ormes’ strips were syndicated in black newspapers across the country, making her the only nationally syndicated black woman cartoonist until the 1990s.
Jackie Ormes died in Chicago on January 2, 1986.
Black Women in America An Historical Encyclopedia
Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine
September 4, 1937:
Torchy Brown in “Dixie to Harlem” depicted the escapades of a teenage country girl, starry-eyed and slightly wacky, abounding in pluck, optimism, and determination. Dinah Dazzle, her friend’s cousin, visits from New York City, inspiring Torchy with fanciful daydreams. Here she heads North by train to try her luck at the Cotton Club in Harlem, in a setup ripe for week after week of humorous scenes. While presenting a funny, entertaining story, this strip reflected the real struggles of people moving from the South to the North. Ormes mocks the predicament of passing for white as youthful Torchy puzzles in the southern train station whether to go in the direction of the “Colored” arrow or to the more comfortable “White” section. http://www.jackieormes.com/tbdh.php