Ophelia DeVore Mitchell, a model, businesswoman and pioneer in the “Black is beautiful” movement, has placed her papers at Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL).
DeVore exemplified power, pride, presence and beauty in African American women. A former model and longtime business executive, she started one of the first modeling agencies for Black models, which helped launch the early careers of actresses Diahann Carroll and Cicely Tyson, among other celebrities.
DeVore also opened a charm school for young Black women to learn etiquette, self-presentation and confidence; launched a cosmetics company catering to African-American women, and took over the Columbus Times, a daily newspaper for the African-American community in Columbus, Ga., which she still owns today. She was appointed by President Reagan to the John F. Kennedy Center Committee on the Arts in 1985 and has been involved in many community programs throughout her career.
Randall K. Burkett, curator of African American Collections at MARBL, says the collection represents Black pride for women. DeVore’s charm school taught women how to present themselves confidently, allowing them to set and achieve higher goals for themselves and expect equal treatment and opportunities. The school counts as its alumni entrepreneurs, businesswomen, actresses, models, news correspondents, judges, doctors, and a New York City chef and restaurant owner, among others.
“What she was communicating, through all of her enterprises, is that you have to see yourself as a beautiful person, as a person of authority and confidence,” Burkett says.
One of the first mixed-race models in the United States, DeVore was born in Edgefield, S.C., in 1922, to parents of German, French, Native American and African-American heritage. In 1933, DeVore was sent to New York City to live with her aunt and complete her education. She graduated from Hunter College High School and attended New York University.
DeVore began modeling in 1938 at the age of 16, working primarily for Ebony magazine. In 1946, she and four friends co-founded Grace del Marco Models; in addition to Diahann Carroll and Cicely Tyson, the agency represented such notable figures as Richard Roundtree (“Shaft”), Gail Fisher (“Mannix”); Trudy Haynes, one of the first African-American female TV reporters; and Helen Williams, one of the first successful African-American models. The agency sought to encourage the media to portray African Americans in non-stereotypical ways.
DeVore took on mainstream publications, advertisers and other agencies who avoided hiring African-American models, and she was a tough businesswoman proud of her accomplishments. She once sued Life Magazine after it published a story in 1969 on Black models for which she was interviewed; the resulting article cited white-owned agencies instead.
(Photo: Model Helen Williams who worked for DeVore’s agency)