Ophelia Devore, founder of first black model agency, teams up with Emory University

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ATLANTA, Ga. — The founder of one of America’s first modeling agencies to represent women of color has placed her papers at Emory University.

Pioneering entrepreneur Ophelia DeVore Mitchell set up the New-York-based Grace Del Marco in 1946 at a time when it was almost unthinkable for black women to be recognized in the media for their beauty.

In its early days, the groundbreaking agency paved the way for African-Americans to pursue careers in the fashion and entertainment industries.

Agency launched black superstars

Indeed, the agency and modeling school helped launch the early careers of actresses Diahann Carroll and Cicely Tyson.

It also represented people such as Gail Fisher; Richard Roundtree; Trudy Haynes, one of the first black female TV reporters; and Helen Williams, one of the first African-American fashion models to break into the mainstream.

DeVore’s extensive collection consists of thousands of items, from photos to scrapbooks relating to her time at the helm of the agency, to lengthy correspondence from her other business ventures.

In an interview with theGrio, DeVore, who is surprisingly lucid for her 92 years, says when she co-founded Grace Del Marco, “people of color didn’t even count in the beauty industry, not just in America, but across the world.”

Her drive,  she says, came from her own personal experiences working briefly as a model, mainly for Ebony Magazine, from the age of 16.

Though DeVore is of mixed-race origin, the South-Carolina-born beauty became acutely aware of how black people were depicted in the media and subsequently made it her mission to change these images.

Two years later, in 1948, Devore established the Ophelia DeVore School of Charm, where young black women learned etiquette, poise and posture, speech and ballet, and self-presentation.

The archives, which span from the 1940s to 1990s, document the changing attitudes and images of non-whites in the beauty industry, says DeVore’s son, James D. Carter, who took over the charm school for a number of years and later ran other aspects of the Devore businesses.

Carter says prior to his mother’s efforts, notions of African-Americans were based on stereotypes and their low-paid jobs as cooks, caregivers, manual workers, and “the mammy type image.”

“I wanted America to know that beauty isn’t just white,” says Devore, who is of German, French, Native Indian and African-American heritage. “It’s all colors. I wanted to change the way people of color were seen across the United States.”

“What she was communicating, through all of her enterprises, is that African-Americans need to see themselves as a people of authority and confidence,” says Randall K. Burkett, curator of African American Collections at Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library.

“This is black pride in its early days. She had a clear sense of herself and wanted African-Americans to have that same sense of pride and confidence.

“We started the conversation about acquiring the papers in 2006,” says Burkett. “It’s been a long process but I am very pleased they’re here. Part of it is DeVore’s extraordinary personality and dynamic energy.”

DeVore says one of her early strategies was to take her finest talent to Europe, which in those days was more forward thinking, to help her girls gain exposure before bringing them back to New York to earn the respect they deserved.

In fact, one of her biggest accomplishments was when one of her prodigies, Cecilia Cooper, became the first ever African-American to win the coveted “Miss Festival” crown in 1959 at the Cannes Film Festival. Cooper won out over 14 European entrants.

Still, DeVore admits in those early days “it was a challenge” to place her models at a time when racism was rampant in the industry. She’d work around the clock to convince clients to see past their color and was vocal about unfair treatment or unfair pay of her models.

In addition to Delore’s work in the fashion and entertainment business, she owns The Columbus Times, a Georgia-based newspaper begun by her second husband, the late Vernon Mitchell. When he passed away in 1972, she took the newspaper’s helm and continues today as its owner, with her daughter, Carol Gertjegerdes, as co-publisher and executive editor.

Carter credits his mother’s success to her work ethic, fearlessness and her passionate desire to be a positive role model.

Follow Kunbi Tinuoye on Twitter at @Kunbiti