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Ophelia DeVore Mitchell, a former model, agent, charm school director and newspaper publisher who almost single-handedly opened the modeling profession to African Americans, died on Feb. 28, 2014 in Manhattan. She was 91.
At her death, Mrs. DeVore-Mitchell was the publisher emeritus of The Columbus Times, a black newspaper in Columbus, Ga., which she ran from the 1970s until her retirement about five years ago. Long before the phrase “Black is beautiful” gained currency in the 1960s, Mrs. DeVore-Mitchell was preaching that ethos by example.
In New York in the 1940s, an age when modeling schools, and modeling jobs, were overwhelmingly closed to blacks-she helped start the Grace Del Modeling Agency and later founded the Ophelia DeVore School of Self-Development and Modeling. The enterprises, which served minorities, endured for decades. The success of the agency, and the visibility of the school’s thousands of graduates, helped pave the way for the careers of contemporary black supermodels like Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks. As an agent, Mrs. DeVore-Mitchell represented members of the first wave of Black models to attain wide visibility at midcentury, among them Helen Williams, often described as the first black supermodel. She also represented a young black model named Richard Roundtree before he went on to fame as an actor in “Shaft” and other movies.
As a charm-school director, Mrs. DeVore-Mitchell taught dress, diction and deportment to thousands of students including the future actress Diahann Carroll, the future television newswomen Sue Simmons and Melba Tolliver, and the future hip-hop artist Faith Evans. “Black has always been beautiful,” Mrs. DeVore-Mitchell said. “But you had to hide it to be a model.”
In the late 1930s, when Mrs. DeVore-Mitchell began her career as one of the first Black models in the United States, she found work by partly hiding her own heritage. But in her case, the hiding was done entirely though inadvertence.
Emma Ophelia DeVore was born on Aug. 12, 1922 in Edgefield, S.C., one of 10 children of John Walter DeVore, a building contractor, and the former Mary Emma Strother, a schoolteacher.
As a girl, Mrs. DeVore-Mitchell, whose family was of African, Cherokee, French and German descent, was educated in segregated Southern schools; she received additional instruction “in dancing, piano and all the other things in the arts that parents gave you to make you a lady,” as she told Ebony magazine in 2012.
A beauty with wide-set eyes, Ophelia DeVore had begun modeling casually as a teenager. A few years later, seeking professional training, she enrolled in the Vogue School of Modeling in New York. In 1946, she and several friends founded the Grace Del Marco agency. (the name was a coinage: “Grace” was a natural choice, “Marco”an acronym of the founders’ initials.) Two years later, wanting a training ground for black models, Mrs. DeVore-Mitchell established a charm school.
Among her other accomplishments, Mrs. DeVore-Mitchell wrote a fashion column for The Pittsburgh Courier, a lack ne3wspaper, was a host of the ABC-TV program “Spotlight on Harlem” in the 1950s; was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts; and was featured in the 1989 book “I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America,” by Brian Lanker. She was a longtime resident of Manhattan.
Her first marriage, to Harold Carter, a New York City firefighter, ended in divorce. In 196, she married Vernon Mitchell, the publisher of The Columbus Times; on his death in 1972, she took over the paper, dividing her time between New York and Georgia.
Her survivors include five children from her first marriage, Carol Gertjegerdes, James Carter, Marie Moore, Cheryl Parks and Michael Carter; nine grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.