Ophelia DeVore-Mitchell, a modeling agent and charm coach who was credited with broadening the American aesthetic decades before civil rights activists proclaimed that black is beautiful, died Feb. 28 at a hospice in New York City. She was 92.
The cause was complications from a stroke, said a son, James Carter.
Known most widely by her maiden name, DeVore was of European, Native American and African-American descent and entered the modeling industry at a time when it largely, if not entirely, excluded minority women.
She was permitted to enroll at the Vogue School of Modeling in New York, she eventually realized, only because administrators had assumed she was white.
Working with several friends, DeVore founded the Grace Del Marco modeling agency in 1946. She was credited with helping start the careers of actresses Cicely Tyson and Diahann Carroll, actor Richard Roundtree and model Helen Williams, whom Ebony magazine described as one of the most photographed black models of the 1950s and 1960s.
“Really, I started an outlet for the world to see what American people of color looked like,” DeVore once told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
While instilling in her models self-confidence and pride, she worked to convince advertisers that employing the women was good business. “Using models of color,” she explained years later, “would get a special part of the market they were not reaching with white models alone.”
DeVore’s business empire also included a line of cosmetics products and the Ophelia DeVore School of Charm, which she opened shortly after founding the modeling agency. Originally located in Queens, the school ultimately moved to the Empire State Building.
Course offerings, Jamaica Kincaid once wrote in a New Yorker magazine essay, included Essentials of Good Grooming, Social Graces, Visual Poise, the First Step into an Adventure of Loveliness, Positive Thinking, Microphone Technique and Figure Control with Fencing and Ballet.
While the school catered mainly to black and Caribbean clients, the need for its services, it was noted, transcended race.
“In a city where such a school might seem a, well, charming anachronism, DeVore has been smoothing the rough edges off New Yorkers” for decades, The New York Times reported in 2003.
Emma Ophelia DeVore was born in Edgefield, S.C., on Aug. 12, 1921, her son said; other sources placed her birth in 1922. Her father was a road contractor, and her mother was a teacher and church pianist.
“I had a background in dancing, piano and all the other things in the arts that parents gave you to make you a lady,” DeVore told Ebony magazine.
She was one of 10 children and spent part of her youth with an aunt in New York City, where she became interested in fashion. DeVore abandoned modeling work to pursue a more entrepreneurial career. Her “mission,” she said, “was to have us presented in a way that was not stereotyped.”
DeVore’s first marriage, to Harold Carter, ended in divorce. In 1968, she married Vernon Mitchell, the publisher of the Columbus Times, a black newspaper in Columbus, Ga. DeVore served as the newspaper’s publisher after her husband’s death in 1972. She also wrote a fashion column for the Pittsburgh Courier.
Survivors include five children from her first marriage, Carol Gertjegerdes of Columbus, Ga., James Carter of New York City, Marie Moore of Los Angeles, Cheryl Parks of Pittsburgh and Michael Carter of Tampa, Fla.; 10 grandchildren; and numerous great-grandchildren.
DeVore’s papers are housed at Emory University in Atlanta. Included in the collection is a message from Lena Horne, the pioneering black Hollywood star.
“It is true that you knew how beautiful black can be before the concept became commercial,” Horne wrote to DeVore. “More significantly, you did something about it.”