Ophelia DeVore knew black was beautiful even before it became a 1960s movement.
Her challenge was convincing corporate and advertising honchos that it was also marketable.
“Really, I started an outlet for the world to see what American people of color looked like,” said DeVore, who in 1946, co-founded New York’s Grace Del Marco Modeling Agency, one of the nation’s first major African-American agencies.
Not only did she demonstrate that it wouldn’t harm their brand, she sold them on the idea that “using models of color would get a special part of the market they were not reaching with white models alone,” she said.
Those struggles and successes are documented in a collection of 109 boxes that include photographs, papers, audiovisual material and correspondence recently acquired by Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives & Rare Book Library (MARBL).
The DeVore collection is a part of the library’s growing African-American collections, which includes black sports history, an array of black scrapbooks and the collections of authors such as Pulitzer Prize-winner Alice Walker and Macon-born John Oliver Killens , who wrote “Youngblood” and was co-founder of the Harlem Writers Guild.
The DeVore collection “reflects another dimension of African-American life,” said Randall K. Burkett, curator of African American Collections . “She grew up in a time when African Americans had to enter through the back door, and she was not a back door person.”
Her collection is unprocessed but open to the public and researchers.
The 91-year-old DeVore lives in New York with a son, James Carter.
DeVore, who studied at the Vogue School of Modeling, founded the agency with four others to help black models who were shunned by white agencies as well as advertisers. She later opened the Ophelia DeVore School of Self-Development and Modeling and started her own cosmetics line using a network of independent consultants.
Among the young men and women she helped were actresses Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson and Gail Fisher and actor Richard Roundtree. The modeling agency closed a few years ago.
DeVore had five children with her first husband, Harold Carter, whom she married in 1941. She married her second husband, Columbus Times publisher Vernon Mitchell, in 1968. He died in 1972.
DeVore’s family still runs the Columbus (Ga.) Times. A daughter, Carol Gertjegerdes, is co-publisher, and DeVore occasionally visits.
Although she modeled for a short time, DeVore’s focus was on the business side of the fashion industry.
“She did a couple of ads, but she never looked for stardom in modeling,” said James Carter. “Business and development were her primary interests.”
He said his mother, who was born in Edgefield, S.C., didn’t buy into notion some whites held that blacks were inferior.
“She never accepted being ‘less than’,” he said. “She had no intention of letting someone else determine her worth and value.”
What does she think of today’s supermodels like Tyson Beckford and Tyra Banks? “She would say congratulations. She knows it’s a different marketplace than it was years ago,” he said.
Although, she may have been slowed down by age and some health issues, Carter said his mother is still coming up “with creative ideas she wants me to do. “