ATLANTA — 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 the owner of a newspaper in Georgia. 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 from New York City, where she now lives, when asked about her contribution.
Emory University in Atlanta has 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 is being housed at the Atlanta university for future research: letters, professional papers, business plans, photos and scrapbooks that 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 ... 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.
She viewed modeling, both for herself and the young women she helped mentor, as a vehicle to present a positive image. To that end, she began a charm school in 1948 for young black women to develop 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 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 and press clippings in carefully organized binders.
Because she was so meticulous, her collection provides a window onto a passing world, researchers note.
Among the papers are 1981 telegrams to DeVore from singers Lena Horne and Cab Calloway, says a document summarizing the collection.
“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 was 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 Reagan’s inauguration that year.
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 (Ga.) Times, a weekly newspaper that serves the black population. She is still owner of the paper today.