Jackie Ormes was born Zelda Mavin Jackson in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to parents William Winfield Jackson and Mary Brown Jackson. Her father was killed in an automobile accident in 1917. Jackie’s mother remarried and the family relocated to the nearby suburb of Monongahela, where she graduated from high school in 1930. She married Earl Ormes in 1931.
Ormes started in journalism as a proofreader for the Pittsburgh Courier. She also worked as an editor and as a freelance writer, writing on police beats, court cases and human interests topics.
Ormes’s first comic strip was called ” Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem”, and appeared in the Pittsburgh Courier in 1937. Torchy’s journey from Mississippi to New York City mirrored the route of many African-Americans who ventured northward during the Great Migration. It was through Torchy Brown that Ormes became the first African-American woman to produce a nationally appearing comic strip. The strip would run until 1938.
Ormes moved to Chicago in 1942 and began writing a social column for The Chicago Defender, one of the nation’s leading black newspapers, a weekly at that time. For a few months at the end of the war, her single panel cartoon, Candy, about an attractive and wisecracking housemaid, appeared in the Defender.
TORCHY IN HEARTBEATS
In 1950 Ormes re-invented her Torchy character in a new comic strip, Torchy in Heartbeats. This Torchy was a beautiful, independent woman who finds adventure while seeking true love. Ormes expressed her talent for fashion design as well as her vision of a beautiful black female body in the accompanying Torchy Togs paper doll cutouts. The strip is probably best known for its last episode in 1954 when Torchy and her doctor boyfriend confront racism and environmental pollution.
Ormes contracted with the Terri Lee doll company in 1947 to produce a play doll based on her cartoon character Patty-Jo doll as the first American black doll to have an extensive upscale wardrobe. As in the cartoon, the doll represented a real child, in contrast to the majority of dolls. The dolls were popular with both black and white children. The Patty-Jo dolls are now highly sought collectors’ items.
Ormes did not only break past the expected roles as a woman and as an African American in the 20th century, but she did so with the rich content of her work. Her heroines all ignored the heinous stereotypical look and actions of a black woman in media (fat, slow, dumb,
She retired from cartooning in 1956, although she continued to create art, including murals, still lifes and portraits until rheumatoid arthritis made this impossible. She died of a cerebral haemorrhage in Chicago. Ormes was posthumously inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame in 2014 and was inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Industry Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 2018.