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    Tough road for early black models

    When I first saw the photo print, I thought the women were Cotton Club dancers. They all had that look, except for a few whose skin color was a little darker than the others.

    The black and white photo on cardboard showed nine African American women in hats, all identified by name in handwritten script on the back with the date Nov. 7, 1954. It was among a group of photos I came across several weeks ago at auction.

    I started Googling their names to find out if they were actually associated with the Cotton Club in New York. I learned that they were not dancers but New York models. I was able to find many of them mentioned in a fashion column in the black publication New York Age Defender from the 1950s. One of them, Milo Gough, was also a milliner whose hats were said to have been worn by some of New York’s top socialites.

    An up-close view of several of the black models in the print of a photo at auction.

    An up-close view of several of the black models in the print of a photo at auction.

    The models in the photo were top row, left to right: Delores Dent, Yvonne Williams, Beatrice Moore, Lili Sisco (written on back as Lillie); second row: Ruth King, Milo Gough, Alice Lamarr; bottom row: Dorothea Turpin and Dorothea Ames. The original photo appears to have been taken at a Gough’s fashion review at the Skyline Ballroom at the Hotel Theresa in New York, and also featured at least two male models and other female models.

    This was my first encounter with early African American models and the history of their being. It seemed that starting in the 1940s, they primarily modeled fashions at shows in New York clubs and other venues. These stage and fashion shows were “the mainstay of many social affairs in the uptown area and … create an ever increasing demand for garments that are both new and stylish,” as one fashion columnist noted in 1954.

    Full view of the print of models at a fashion at the Skyline Room at the Hotel Theresa in New York, Nov. 7, 1954.

    Full view of the print of a photo of models at a fashion show in the Skyline Room at the Hotel Theresa in New York, Nov. 7, 1954.

    When such companies as Johnson Publishing Co. started Ebony in 1945 and Jet and other magazines in the 1950s, another avenue – print advertising – opened to them.

    They were not hired for white fashion magazines or product advertising because they were black. They could never be a contestant in the wildly popular Miss Rheingold contest, which allowed the public to choose the winner in an advertising ploy by a beer company of the same name that ran from the 1940s to the 1960s.

    The black models seemed to have gotten much of their publicity and face time in the columns of fashion editor Hal DeWindt of the black newspaper New York Age Defender. In his society-style column, “Your Pal, Hal” wrote extensively about the models, the black agencies they worked for and the many shows that were produced. (A director, producer and actor, DeWindt would in 1959 become the first male model for Ebony Fashion Fair and in 1989 founder of the American Theatre of Harlem.)

    Ralph Cooper (who was known for the first Amateur Night at the Apollo) had a TV show on ABC in 1950s called “Spotlight on Harlem” that also spotlighted them, according to DeWindt.

    Model Helen Williams on the cover of Ebony, January 1959.

    Model Helen Williams on the cover of Ebony, January 1959.

    In one column, DeWindt was not very kind to the models and their professionalism, while in another he extolled the 1955 Miss Rheingold model Nancy Woodruff who “personifies the typical American girl, the kind of girl you meet every day on the subway, coming out of church, or running to catch the 5th ave bus.”

    Black modeling agencies grew out of necessity. When African Americans were used in ads by white companies, they were shown as stereotypical mammies, Aunt Jemimas or Uncle Moses. Blacks founded their own agencies starting in the 1940s to provide models that upended the stereotypes. At the same time, they showed companies the economic impact of directing advertising to the multi-million-dollar black consumer market with positive images, according to the 2011 book “Inside Marketing: Practices, Ideologies, Devices.”

    Their initial aim was to have black models in advertising campaigns for household products, not necessarily fashion.

    Barbara Watson, left, and Ophelia DeVore.

    Barbara Watson, left, and Ophelia DeVore.

    “Our purpose is to achieve recognition for Negroes as competent models in the advertising market,” Barbara Watson of Barbara Watson Models Inc. said in a 1954 interview with DeWindt. “Before we began in 1944 the Negro model as a market was a business completely neglected, but by hard labor, persuasion and education of the modeling agencies, the public has finally accepted us.

    “The future of the models is based completely on the integration of both races. The use of Negro models in Vogue, Harper and all the other high caliber magazines according to ability alone is the ultimate goal.”

    In his columns, DeWindt mentioned three owners of agencies in New York, the mecca for both advertising and fashion: Watson, Ophelia DeVore of the Grace Del Marco Modeling Agency and Ann Prince of Parkview Studios, which I could find little about. When he began the column in August 1954, he wrote an open letter to the three seeking their help to “make modeling a cherished and lucrative profession, but by improving our women, we will, meanwhile, be making a substantial contribution toward the improvement of the race.”

    Hal DeWindt in a Duke ad in Ebony magazine, July 1960.

    Hal DeWindt in a Duke ad in Ebony magazine, July 1960.

    Watson opened her agency with two partners in 1946, and after they left gave it her own name. Like the others, it was not only a modeling agency but also a charm school. Watson’s father was the first black judge elected in New York state, James S. Watson in 1930, and her mother, one of the founders of the National Council of Negro Women, Violet Lopez Watson in 1935. She was the cousin of Colin Powell, who was secretary of state under President George W. Bush.

    After closing her modeling agency in 1956, Barbara Watson went on to become the first black and first female assistant secretary of state under President Johnson, and continued as such under three other presidents. Her papers are in the archives of the New York Public Library.

    DeVore opened her agency and school in 1946 with several friends as partners. She represented some of the top black models, including Helen Williams, considered to be the first black supermodel. She also represented Richard Roundtree as a model before he became the superstar of the “Shaft” movies in the 1970s.

    Model Dolores Grigsby on cover of December 1955 Hue magazine.

    Model Dolores Grigsby on cover of December 1955 Hue magazine, a John H. Johnson publication.

    She got her training at the white-owned Vogue School of Modeling in New York. She had apparently been admitted because the school believed she was white based on her light skin. DeVore told Ebony magazine in a 2012 interview that she didn’t realize this until the school refused to enroll another black applicant.

    Devore’s papers are at Emory University in Atlanta.

    In his columns, DeWindt often mentioned the Fashion Show Service, formed by a dance instructor named Roderick “Skotye” Scott (whom he described as the “Sepia Jeff Chandler“), of which he was a director. For a fee, the service offered models, props, lights, hatmakers, designers and entertainment for shows. In its first show, Count Basie’s Orchestra was among the entertainment.

    Although the lives of models may have appeared to be glamorous, it was not all pleasurable. Model Hazel Stitt complained to DeWindt about the lack of proper compensation for their work. The models worked other jobs, such as telephone clerks, to help pay the bills.

    From left to right, models Lois Bell, Muriel French, Vivienne Hampton show off fashions for an upcoming show at the r, get ready for show at Rockland Palace. From the Oct. 24, 1953, New York Age and Defender.

    From left, models Lois Bell, Muriel French and Vivienne Hampton show off fashions for an upcoming show at the Rockland Palace. From the Oct. 24, 1953, New York Age and Defender.

    “‘Modelling is a profession, a business and as in all other business transactions, the participants should expect cold, hard cash for their work and time,” Stitt said. “I realize too well how wonderful it is to see a picture of yourself in a magazine. Being a model, I have flipped every time, and I will probably never stop being elated over seeing my picture. BUT this feeling of ecstasy is even more magnanimous when you are being compensated financially.'”

    The crux of Miss Stitts’ remarks was that the most discouraging point of the Negro as a model is that they cannot obtain the sufficient amount of jobs that will supply them with an adequate rate of pay to permit year around employment. A very interesting part of the interview came when the lovely, twenty-one year-old model said, ‘Numerous independent models and an indeterminate number pose for ‘job’ pictures that are used in magazines, free of charge.

    ‘These models pose for no pay under the false assumption that the chances of acquiring jobs in the future.’ … In summarizing the points made by Hazel I might add that the models working for gratis are lowering the value of all the other girls who are striving for a place in the profession that will enhance the race.”

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