Jackie Ormes was born Zelda Mavin Jackson on August 1, 1911, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Ormes drew and wrote throughout high school. She was arts editor for her 1929–1930 High School Yearbook where her earliest efforts as a cartoonist can be seen in the lively caricatures of her school's students and teachers. It was during this period that she wrote a letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, a weekly Black newspaper that was published on Saturdays. This correspondence led to her first writing assignment—covering a boxing match, But what she really wanted to do was draw.
Ormes's first comic strip, Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem, first appeared in the Pittsburgh Courier on May 1, 1937. Her work was not syndicated in the usual sense, but, since the Courier had fourteen city editions, she was read from coast to coast. The strip, starring Torchy Brown, was a humorous depiction of a Mississippi teen who found fame and fortune singing and dancing in the Cotton Club. It was through Torchy Brown that Ormes became the first Black woman to produce a nationally appearing comic strip. The strip ran until April 30, 1938.
Ormes moved to Chicago in 1942. She soon began writing occasional articles and, briefly, 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; the panel ran from March 24 to July 21, 1945.
By August 1945, Ormes's work was back in the Courier, with the advent of Patty-Jo 'n' Ginger, a single-panel cartoon which ran for 11 years. The strip ran from September 1, 1945 to September 22, 1956.
Starting August 19, 1950, the Courier began an eight-page color comics insert, where Ormes re-invented her Torchy character in a new comic strip, Torchy in Heartbeats. The strip is probably best known for its last installment on September 18, 1954, when Torchy and her doctor boyfriend confront racism and environmental pollution. Ormes used Torchy in Heartbeats as a sounding board for several big issues of the time.
Ormes contracted with the Terri Lee doll company in 1947 to produce a play doll based on her little girl cartoon character. The Patty-Jo doll was on the shelves in time for Christmas and was the first American black doll to have an extensive upscale wardrobe. In December 1949, Ormes's contract with the Terri Lee company was not renewed, and production ended. Patty-Jo dolls are now highly sought collectors' items.
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