By Kate Brumback
As a shrewd businesswoman with keen insight and endless aspirations, Ophelia DeVore worked for much of the 20th century to smash stereotypes and empower black women by teaching them poise, confidence and the courage to get ahead in a world deeply etched by racial discrimination.
DeVore’s eclectic career spanned more than six decades, beginning as a model at 16 and continuing into her 90s today as owner of the Columbus Times, a black weekly newspaper in Columbus, Ga.
Along the way, she opened one of the first modeling agencies for black models, established a charm school for black women to present themselves more effectively and launched a cosmetics line for darker complexions. “I think one of my greatest accomplishments was trying to change the image of people of color,” DeVore said by phone from New York City, where she now lives, when asked about her contribution.
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Emory University recently acquired the collected papers of DeVore, 91, who was a strong role model for American minorities and particularly a beacon of style and self-confidence for young black women before, during and after the Civil Rights era.
As a model, role model and entrepreneur, Devore is a figure from American life who observers say made a lasting contribution to challenging the perceptions of minorities long dogged by adverse stereotypes. Her extensive archive — 60 cubic feet of boxed materials — is being housed at the Atlanta university for future research: letters, professional papers, business plans, photographs and scrapbooks that meticulously chronicle a rich and busy life.
The collection is “an incredibly well-documented archive that is going to produce new scholarship and a new understanding of who we are as Americans and how we’ve interacted with one another, how we’ve interacted with ourselves and how we see ourselves,” said Randall Burkett, curator of African-American collections at Emory’s library.
With ancestry that included German, French, Native American and African-American roots, DeVore’s light skin often led people to mistake her for white. She doesn’t understand how people could make that mistake given her mostly black features. That in turn fed her interest in image and her desire to control the way people saw her — whether through modeling, marketing, the media or other means.
She viewed modeling, both for herself and the young women she helped mentor, not necessarily as a career but as a vehicle to present a positive image. To that end, she began a charm school in 1948 for young black women to develop the skills to help them attain their personal and professional goals. A consulting firm she created helped companies target minority demographics.
“The image of the model was always well-groomed, good posture, good wardrobe, good etiquette,” DeVore’s son, James Carter, said of print advertisements in the 1930s and 1940s. “And the stereotypical perception of people of color was lacking all of those refinements, and my mother felt that through advertising and through the modeling profession you could create a more positive image.”
Along the way she mentored many. Through her modeling agency, DeVore helped launch the early careers of some black celebrities, including actresses Diahann Carroll and Cicely Tyson, model Helen Williams and actor Richard Roundtree. DeVore continued to follow their careers through personal correspondence and the press and kept letters, photographs and press clippings, both positive and negative, in carefully organized binders.
Because she was so meticulous, her collection provides a window onto a passing world, researchers note.
Among the papers are March 1981 telegrams to DeVore from singers Lena Horne and Cab Calloway, according to a document summarizing the collection’s highlights.
“It is true that you knew how beautiful black can be before the concept became commercial,” Horne wrote. “More significantly, you did something about it. You have not only helped to develop a galaxy of stars of entertainment and communication as well as other fields. You have helped to enhance and enrich the lives of thousands of not-so-well-known persons who I am sure are grateful.”
Calloway wrote: “Your contribution in developing resources and skills among our young people has produced many fine artists and has made us all aware and proud of our wonderful heritage.” Her roots trace back to her early childhood in rural South Carolina.
Born in 1922, DeVore had nine siblings and spent her early childhood in the South before being sent to New York just before middle school to live with her aunt and complete her education. She had a great love and respect for her mother, who often stressed that people of color were beautiful and capable, and she drew strength from that, she said.
“I didn’t wait for somebody to make a plan for me or a roadmap for me,” she said. “I did it for myself.”
She traveled throughout the world with her models and on other business, and her papers include letters from business leaders, celebrities and politicians. Then-President Ronald Reagan appointed her in 1985 to the John F. Kennedy Center Committee on the Arts. One of her scrapbooks includes mementos from her attendance at Reagan’s inauguration that year, including a schedule of events, tickets to inaugural balls and photographs.
Her penchant for organizing and documenting was a priority she passed on to her children and students.
“When people ask my mother about her career and about her being a businesswoman (…) she could visually show them the historical trail of what she had done and the people who were involved with it,” son James Carter said. “So she was always a stickler for keeping written records as well as photographic records.”
Carter is one of five children DeVore had with her first husband, Harold Carter, whom she divorced in the mid-1960s.
DeVore married again to newspaper publisher Vernon Mitchell in 1968. Upon his death in 1972, DeVore took over the Columbus Times. She is still owner of the paper today, and her daughter Carol Gertjegerdes serves as co-publisher and executive editor. As with so many of her ventures, DeVore used the paper to convey positive news about the black community to counter what she saw as negative coverage in other outlets.
“For so long, and still today in 2013, the only headlines usually made by African-Americans are negative news, criminal cases and things like that,” Gertjegerdes said. “She is a person that sees the good in her people, as she says. She’s going to always look for the positive.”