The fashion industry is still struggling with the concept of inclusion. Every year there are reports detailing the ways in which models of color are–and most often– are not proportionately represented in advertisements and runway shows. If it’s an issue today, you can imagine what the landscape looked like back in the 1930’s and ’40’s.
But as the modeling world was still in its infancy, Ophelia DeVore-Mitchell found a way to use modeling to send a message about our people, a positive one.
Born in August 22, 1922 in Edgefield, South Carolina, DeVore-Mitchell describes her childhood, as one of ten children, as being sheltered. She attended segregated schools as a child but eventually went to live with her aunt in New York CIty, to ensure that her education wouldn’t be disturbed by her father’s travel schedule. She graduated from Hunter College High School and was admitted to New York University as a math major.
During this time, people started suggesting DeVore-Mitchell take on modeling jobs. She accepted the work for publications like Ebony and other African American companies. And as the work proved to be more and more consistent, she became one of the few models of color in the United States.
In 1941, DeVore-Mitchell married Harold Carter, who worked as a firefighter while she studied fashion, public relations and advertising. The couple had five children together.
In an interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project, DeVore-Mitchell said that modeling was never her passion. But she quickly realized that it could be used for a greater purpose.
“I did a little a modeling but it wasn’t what I was looking for. It wasn’t my mission. It just happened to be something that I needed to do to communicate the mission that I wanted to have communicated, in a positive way. And that was the vehicle that I used to communicate a positive image of my people. Because I wanted not only me to be accepted on a top level, I wanted everybody to be accepted as human beings.”
DeVore-Mitchell and some of her family members came up with the idea to open up a modeling school to train other women of color to both enter and succeed in the modeling and entertainment industry.
DeVore-Mitchell realized that in order to teach these skills she would need to be formally trained. So she enrolled in the Vogue School of Modeling in New York.
When it was almost time for DeVore-Mitchell to complete the program, a brown-skinned Black woman showed up at the school seeking to learn the ins and outs of the modeling industry as well. Her arrival caused a bit of an uproar in the school as instructors didn’t know what to do with this woman, particularly since they thought they didn’t admit women of color. It was then, watching their frantic reaction, that DeVore-Mitchell realized that the school didn’t realize she was also Black. She had passed, unknowingly. DeVore-Mitchell, close to completion, didn’t say anything and took the knowledge she and acquired to start her own modeling school for women and men of color.
In 1946, the same year that she left Vogue, DeVore-Mitchell started the Grace Del Marco modeling agency in New York. Two years later, she opened the Ophelia DeVore School of Self Development and Modeling. There, she taught more than 20,000 students etiquette, poise, posture, speech and ballet. She taught students how to carry themselves, how to look people in the eye, how to cross their legs properly and how to leave an impression walking in and out of a room.
The school’s marker of success was the number of legendary stars who attended or graduated from the program, including legendary names like Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson, Susan Taylor, Gail Fisher and Richard Roundtree.
The agency held shows in churches, on college campuses and in the ballrooms of the Diplomat and Waldorf Astoria hotels. DeVore-Mitchell’s breakthrough came when she traveled to Europe and made a name for herself in the French fashion world.
In continuation of her work, DeVore-Mitchell produced a promotional campaign for Johnson & Johnson. The project launched the career of supermodel Helen Williams. DeVore-Mitchell and her students made history as hosts of ABC’s weekly television show “Spotlight on Harlem.” It was the first show produced by and for African Americans.
Later, in 1959 and 1960 DeVore-Mitchell made history when two of her clients became the first Americans, of any race, to win titles at the Cannes Film Festival.
In 1968, she married Vernon Mitchell and the two remained together until he died in 1972.
Throughout her career, DeVore-Mitchell created two the of first ethnic beauty contests, developed a column in the Pittsburgh Courier Newspaper and she created a line of cosmetics specifically for women of color.
Through her involvement in virtually every facet of the beauty and entertainment industry, DeVore-Mitchell changed the entire game.
DeVore-Mitchell passed away just last year, February 28, at the age of 91-years-old. She is survived by her five children and her 9 grandchildren.
If you get a chance, you should really take a listen to her full sit down interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project. She was a phenomenal lady and an exceptionally good storyteller.