This set of pictures were part of a cover feature in LIFE magazine under the title ‘Black Models take Center Stage’. And the ramifications of that cover continue to be felt today.
The article centered on the modeling agency ‘Black Beauty’, formed in Spring 1968, and at the time, the fastest-growing black modeling agency in the US.
By the end of 1969, it represented 45 women, 25 men and 21 children. (The original article listed the women as ‘girls’…)
Prior to 1945, black people simply did not appear in U.S. advertisements at all, beyond cartoon racist stereotypes. This changed with the arrival of the magazine Ebony.
In 1947, the first national campaign to feature a black person saw boxer Joe Louis endorsing Chesterfield cigarettes. The first black modeling agency also appeared in the 1940s — but the fees paid were about half those earned by white models.
Even by 1969, less than 10% of adverts showed any black people. The Black Beauty agency was then led by an ex — and white — model called Betty Foray, who told LIFE magazine unequivocally that her goal was to hurry the day when skin color simply didn’t matter.
One person on the Black Beauty books — and the cover star for the LIFE piece — was Naomi Sims, a woman often regarded as the world’s first black supermodel.
As a thirteen-year-old, Naomi had been ostracized by her classmates — for her height. She was 5′ 10″.
Sims was the first black model on the cover of LIFE. But she would retire from modeling in 1973, disillusioned by the industry and what felt like tokenistic racial equality. As she said “If they use you, it’s because you’re black.”
Sims didn’t look back, though, writing many books, and establishing a multi-million dollar beauty business.
She died in 2009 from breast cancer, at the age of 61. The impact she made, however, continues.