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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Cartoonist Jackie Ormes was one of a kind. In her time, she was the only African-American woman publishing cartoons in the newspaper. In the '30s, '40s and '50s, Ormes used humor to take on segregation, foreign policy and environmental justice. She died in 1985, and her work was largely forgotten. As Kyle Norris of Michigan Public Radio reports, a new biography is bringing attention back to Jackie Ormes.

KYLE NORRIS: Jackie Ormes was a staple in the Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American newspaper read from coast to coast. If you opened up its pages in 1937, here's what you might have seen.

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NORRIS: Young Torchy Brown is about to get on a train that will whisk her away from her small, Southern town to the Big Apple. Suddenly, a sign with two arrows catches her eye. One arrow points to the colored section of the train, and the other arrow points to the white section. Torchy jumps back.

Unidentified Woman: Hmm. I'll just pretend I can't read very well.

NORRIS: Torchy, who's African-American, opts for the white section. She befriends a white foreigner, and she shares her newspaper with him, which has all the details from the latest Joe Lewis fight. When the conductor walks by, he tries to kick Torchy out of the white section, but her new friend tells the conductor that she's with him, and he basically tells the conductor to scram.

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NORRIS: Jackie Ormes was a big inspiration for syndicated black cartoonist Barbara Brandon-Croft. She says that Ormes's characters and stories were real, at a time when African-Americans where almost always portrayed as derogatory stereotypes.

Ms. BARBARA BRANDON-CROFT (Syndicated Newspaper Cartoonist): Black women were always fat, had bandanas on their heads, had large lips, were always porters. They were servants. Kids were pickaninnies. You know, we were maids. You know, think of "Gone with the Wind." We didn't speak clear English. All that.

NORRIS: Jackie Ormes's characters were smart and classy, drawn in a strong, clean style. Ormes's single-panel cartoon "Patty-Jo 'n' Ginger" ran from 1945 to 1956. It featured two sisters. Ginger was this knockout older sister. She always looked smoking in sort of a pin-up style and she never said a word. And then you had her kid sister Patty-Jo. Patty-Jo always had something very sharp to say.

Unidentified Woman: It would be interesting to discover which committee decided it was un-American to be colored.

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Unidentified Woman: Yeah. It's my attitude teacher keeps flapping about, but I tell her I'm not equipped to hate people (unintelligible), seeing as how my heart's just beloved. I've got no place to put it, have I?

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NORRIS: Brandon-Croft says that Ormes used her own unique voice to talk about what was going on in the black community. She points to Ormes's cartoon about Emmett Till. He was a 14-year-old black boy brutally murdered in the South in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

Ms. BRANDON-CROFT: You don't think of things that are so serious being handled in a comic strip form, and she was able to do that.

NORRIS: In this particular cartoon panel, Ginger is on the couch. She's holding a newspaper. Her kid sister Patty-Jo is walking from the kitchen into the living room, and she says…

Unidentified Woman: I don't want to seem touchy on the subject, but that new little white tea kettle just whistled at me.

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NORRIS: Nancy Goldstein just wrote a book about Jackie Ormes. She says Ormes saw the glass as half full, and that one of the key things that Ormes did was provide role models for people in the black community.

Ms. NANCY GOLDSTEIN (Author, "Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist"): At that time, for people to look at her characters and say, oh, here's Ginger. She's just graduated from college. I can do that, too. Here's Torchy. She's challenging the racism and the status quo of the era, and I can do that, too. And so she was giving voice to what was in the hearts and minds of so many people to move forward and make progress.

NORRIS: But today, Jackie Ormes is pretty much an unknown. Her older readers remember her, and so do African-American cartoonists and women cartoonists. And some historians and academics know who she was, partly because she was really active in Chicago's political and cultural communities. Brandon-Croft says we're lucky to have this new book that showcases Jackie Ormes. She says Ormes's cartoons are powerful in this, like, subtle way.

Ms. BRANDON-CROFT: It's not hitting somebody on the head. It's not rioting in the streets. It's a form of making your point without any kind of harm to anybody. It's the strength of the pen on the paper that allows you that.

NORRIS: It's been said that Jackie Ormes did not think her cartoons, or what she even did, was a big deal. But many people like cartoonists and women and African-Americans are coming to the conclusion that that is not the case. For NPR News, I'm Kyle Norris.

MICHELE NORRIS: And you can find some of Jackie Ormes's cartoons at our Web site: npr.org.

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