Dr. Ophelia DeVore Mitchell died peacefully on Friday, Feb. 28. She was 92 years old at the time of her death.
Known for her pioneering efforts in the fields of beauty, fashion, modeling and entertainment, Mitchell was the first mixed race/African-American high fashion model in Harlem-New York City in the late 1940s. Mitchell exemplified power, pride, presence and beauty in African-American women. Over the years, she added newspaper owner-publisher, business executive, producer and consultant to her long list of accomplishments. She traveled extensively in the U.S., Europe, Africa, Asia, Central America and the Caribbean.
Mitchell was born on Aug. 22, 1921, in Edgefield, S.C., to the late John DeVore and Mary Strother DeVore. She was the last surviving offspring of the DeVores. Her brothers were John, Claude, Joseph, Walter and Hammond, and her sisters were Blanche, Precola, Ruth and Dorothea.
She attended Southern segregated schools as a child, but she eventually went to live with an aunt in New York City, where she graduated from Hunter College High School before going on to major in mathematics at New York University. During this time, Mitchell began doing occasional modeling jobs and became one of the first non-white fashion models in the United States. At the age of 16, she was traveling and working for Ebony magazine.
In 1946, she enrolled in the Vogue School of Modeling, which until that time had excluded women of color. Later that year, she, along with four of her colleagues, founded the Grace Del Marco Modeling Agency as a way to help create opportunities for models of color. In 1948, she created the Ophelia DeVore School of Self-Development and Modeling. She opened the doors of modeling and television in the late 1940s and early 1950s for men and women of African-American heritage and other minorities in the United States of America.
She made history in 1959 and 1960, when two of her clients, Cecilia Cooper and LaJeune Hundley, a beauty queen from the Precola DeVore School in Washington, D.C., became the first Americans, Black or white, to win titles at the Cannes Film Festival in France.
Throughout the 1960s, Mitchell continued to revolutionize nearly every facet of the modeling and beauty industry. She created two of the first nationally known ethnic beauty contests in the U.S., developed a fashion column for the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper and created a line of cosmetics specially formulated for people of color.
She was also a civil rights activist who received personal accolades from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was a given for Mitchell to take models to the Black colleges in the South, where there were prestigious fashion shows and self-esteem workshops. At the helm was Mitchell along with gorgeous women models. She taught, “Black is beautiful.”
In addition to creating opportunities to showcase African-Americans in magazines, on the runway, in pageants and in fashion shows, Mitchell started marketing to non-white audiences. As part of this project, she produced a massive promotional campaign for Johnson & Johnson that launched the career of supermodel Helen Williams. In 1955, Mitchell and her models made history as hosts of ABC’s weekly television show “Spotlight on Harlem.” It was the first television program in New York produced by and for African-Americans.
Beginning in the early 1970s, she became the owner and publisher of the Columbus Times newspaper in Columbus, Ga., where she set trends in reporting positive news about African-Americans. During her decades in business, Mitchell wrote a column for the Black Newspapers of America (the National Newspaper Publishers Association) and served on the board of the organization. She was a founder of the Black Press Archives at Howard University and was elected several times as the national secretary of the National Newspaper Publishers Association. She was one of the founders of Black Media (an advertising agency developing marketing strategies for the Black-owned newspapers). The Columbus Times was turned over to her daughter and son-in-law, Carol and Helmut Gertjegerdes.
She produced several New York City cable television shows, including the “Ophelia DeVore Show,” which became one of the longest running cable shows on TV. She was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the John F. Kennedy Center Committee on the Arts in 1985. In 1991, assisted by her son James Carter, the two founded DeVore Carter Communications. Mitchell continued to oversee all her enterprises, and her development programs touched more than 90,000 lives.
For her outstanding service, she received more than 300 awards and honors and was named one of the 75 Black women who changed America in the “I Dream a World” series.
Mitchell had five children with her first husband, Harold Carter, whom she married in 1941. She married her second husband, Columbus News publisher Vernon Mitchell, in 1968. She is survived by her five children. Including their spouses, they are Carol Carter Gertjegerdes (Helmut), Columbus, Ga.; James DeVore Carter (Gayle), New York, N.Y.; Dr. Marie Carter Moore, Los Angeles, Calif.; Cheryl Carter Parks, Pittsburgh, Pa.; and Michael Carter (Sherry), Tampa, Fla. All of her children worked in her businesses at one time.
Her grandchildren and their spouses are Petra Gertjegerdes-Myricks (Antoine), Mark Gertjegerdes (Jasmine), Helmut H. Gertjegerdes (Crystal) and Tanya Gertjegerdes Williams (Lito)—all of Columbus, Ga.; LaJuan Dent (Kevin), Edison, N.J.; Lori Harris (Derek), Edison, N.J.; James Carter Jr., Charlotte, N.C.; Shawn Carter (Caity), Tampa, Fla.; and Karis Carter-Tampa, Fla. She has 16 great –grandchildren.
Through her wide and diverse involvement in nearly every facet of the modeling, beauty, fashion, entertainment, marketing and news industries, Mitchell has helped society move closer to realizing her own mission: “I didn’t model a long time because that wasn’t my mission to be a model. My mission was to have us presented in a way that was not stereotyped.”
She was the architect of charm and modeled for people of color.
“Ms. DeVore was an extraordinary woman. Her guidance and caring made it possible for me and so many young women to move into society with confidence and poise. As a young woman, I was taught so many invaluable lessons by this lady, from beauty care to the importance of self-esteem. She prepared me for the business world, for which I will always be grateful. Ophelia DeVore is an incredible woman,” said Diahann Carroll.
There will be a memorial service in Columbus, Ga. Send condolences to the family of Ophelia DeVore Mitchell, c/o The Columbus Times Newspaper, 2230 Buena Vista Road, Columbus, GA 31906.