Ophelia DeVore-Mitchell: Fashion Model, Entrepreneur, Publisher
Ophelia DeVore (1921-2014) began her modeling career in 1938 when she was only 16. This gave her an early understanding of how difficult it was for non-whites to be selected for fashion photography or for advertising commissions. This led DeVore to start a modeling agency to represent men and women from different backgrounds. Diahann Carroll was one of several well-known names she represented.
Ophelia DeVore’s Early Life
Ophelia DeVore grew up in Edgefield, South Carolina. She was one of ten children born to her parents of mixed races; her father was of French and German descent; her mother was Cherokee and African. Ophelia was light skinned but attended segregated schools with African Americans and always thought of herself as black.
After grammar school, she was sent to live with an aunt in New York City. She attended public schools there, eventually qualifying to attend the academically rigorous Hunter College High School.
At the age of 16, she followed the suggestion of family and friends and tried out for some modeling jobs. She was beautiful, and her background in dance gave her an ease in movement that made modeling easy for her. The first jobs offered were small hair care modeling jobs. It was a good way to make money as a student, and DeVore began learning the business.
DeVore went on to attend New York University where she majored in mathematics. After graduating, she returned to modeling for a time. To gain professional training, she enrolled in the Vogue School of Modeling. She had almost completed the eight-week program when she learned of another black candidate who had applied to the school but was rejected because of her skin color. DeVore then realized that she had been accepted because they didn’t realize she was black. She finished the Vogue program with new resolve to find a way to change the system.
Black Pride before It was a Movement
A year later—in 1946—she and several friends founded the Grace del Marco agency to represent non-white models. (“Marco” was an acronym of the founders’ initials.) Their challenge was twofold. They needed to sign and place clients, but they also needed to educate companies. DeVore knew that part of the process would involve showing businesses how and why they should engage the non-white advertising market.
DeVore’s most successful model was Helen Williams who is widely viewed as the first black supermodel. She was selected as a showroom model for Christian Dior, a very prestigious assignment at the time. Then Ophelia DeVore began encouraging companies to feature Williams in ads. If Helen Williams was to be used to advertise Johnson & Johnson products, DeVore was there to advise the company on how to appeal to what was a new market for them. Williams also appeared in campaigns for Budweiser and Bulova watches, and DeVore guided those campaigns similarly.
She also represented a young model named Richard Roundtree who soon went on to make his living in films. He was cast as the detective in the action film, Shaft. The film was so popular that several more in the series were filmed.
Cosmetics Line and Modeling School
From her own experience and that of her agency co-founders, she knew that new cosmetics for people of color needed to be introduced. She soon created and marketed a line of cosmetics.
To provide the kind of training DeVore received at the Vogue Modeling School, DeVore started her own school. She called it the Ophelia DeVore School of Self-Development and Modeling, and its curriculum included a variety of classes to impart knowledge needed for those in the public eye. There were dance and movement classes, etiquette, makeup instruction, training for using a microphone, and whatever other subjects DeVore determined were necessary for her students. The school was first held in the back room of a photography studio and grew to be so successful that DeVore took space in the Empire State Building.
By the time the school closed in 2006, more than 20,000 students had gone through its ranks, including well-known personalities such as New York newswomen Sue Simmons and Melba Tolliver. Her most famous graduate was the teenaged Diahann Carroll. Carroll went on to stardom as a singer, a Broadway actress, and to play the title character in Julia, a TV series that was noteworthy for simply telling the story of a nurse; there was no focus on color.
Later Career and Personal Life
In her continuing mission to create a fashion-oriented culture for African Americans, DeVore began writing a fashion column for The Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper. In the 1950s she was one of the hosts of the ABC-TV show, Spotlight on Harlem. This is thought to be the first program produced by and for African Americans.
All five of her children were from her first marriage to Harold Carter, a firefighter. The marriage ended in divorce, and in 1968 she married Vernon Mitchell, the publisher of The Columbus Times in Columbus, Georgia. When he died just four years later, she assumed the responsibility for the paper and began dividing her time between New York and Georgia.
Among her accomplishments as a publisher was teaming up with other publishers to create a repository for black newspapers. The Black Press Archives are now maintained by Howard University.
She received many honors during her lifetime and was given an opportunity to affect the world on a national level. In 1985 President Ronald Reagan appointed her to the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts. In addition, she was one of 75 women included in photographer Brian Lanker’s 1989 book, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America.
In an interview with the black-themed news site The Grio shortly before her death in 2014, Ophelia DeVore said: “I wanted America to know that beauty isn’t just white.”
To learn about another incredible woman who had a big impact on the fashion industry, read about the Ebony Fashion Fair created by Eunice Johnson.