She was one of the most photographed Black models of the 1950s and ’60s, seen mainly in magazines, like Ebony and Jet, aimed at the Black middle class.
Swan-necked and with an arched-eyebrow hauteur, Helen Williams was the aspirational face of the Black middle class in the 1950s and 60s — the most photographed, and highest paid, Black model of her era.
She was a frequent cover girl for Ebony, Jet and Tan magazines, and the face aligned with many of the products advertised within, from Kodak to Modess to Simplicity Patterns.
She was a ladylike beauty in Budweiser ads; a poised career girl smoking Kent cigarettes. She telegraphed luxury for Bulova watches and put on a sporty mien for Mum deodorant. When she spent a month in Paris in 1960, working as a house model for Christian Dior and Jean Dessès, Ebony covered the trip of “America’s most successful Negro model” in breathless prose.
By the end of her visit, the magazine wrote, she had received three marriage proposals (all politely declined), including one from a French suitor who became, as Ebony noted, “so carried away by her beauty that he passionately kissed her foot, murmuring, ‘I worship the ground you walk on, mademoiselle.’”
Yet as she told a reporter in 1965, “Why can’t we Negroes be recognized in our own backyards?”
Helen Williams, often described as the first Black supermodel, who paved the way for models like Naomi Sims, Pat Cleveland and others who broke barriers in mainstream fashion, died at 87 on July 26 at a care center in Moorestown, N.J., near her home in East Riverton. Her death, which was not widely reported at the time, was confirmed by her cousin Osa Meekins, who said the cause was Alzheimer’s disease.
Like everything else in America during the postwar years — and beyond — media and the advertising that supported it were often segregated. The success of Ebony magazine, which began publishing in the 1940s, however, showed the buying power of the Black consumer, and so-called mainstream companies began advertising there.
“They realized that Black people had money, too,” said Fath Ruffins, curator of African American history and culture at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian in Washington. “It became safe to attract Black people. Helen is part of that process. She is from the generation who grew up in and worked as an adult in a segregated environment.”
Outside of racial stereotypes like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, one didn’t see many Black faces in ads in the mainstream press. Fashion magazines were another hurdle. When Richard Avedon photographed Donyale Luna, a young Black model from Detroit, for Harper’s Bazaar in 1965, there was a backlash from subscribers and advertisers, many of whom canceled their subscriptions and orders.
Ophelia DeVore, a model turned modeling agent and charm school director, started her business, the Grace de Marco Modeling Agency, to focus on the burgeoning Black consumer market, and Ms. Williams became one of her biggest stars.
“She was very much a product of her time,” said Norma Jean Darden, the fashion model turned restaurateur who was also once represented by Ms. DeVore (and who was one of 10 Black American models who participated in the so-called Battle of Versailles in 1973, when American designers faced off against French designers, another pivot point in the history of Black models). She added, “And Helen was everywhere,” walking the runways of local Black fashion shows held most weekends at Black churches and community centers in and around New York City in the 1950s.
“Young girls and their mothers were following her career with great pride and delight,” Ms. Darden said. (When a manufacturer of mannequins wanted to make Black mannequins, both Ms. Darden and Ms. Williams were asked to pose as models.)
What was also notable about Ms. Williams’ success was her dark skin. Magazines and advertisers of the period often privileged lighter skin over darker.
“Back then they didn’t want you to look too colored,” said Audrey Smaltz, a Black fashion model and fashion commentator who was a contemporary of Ms. Williams. “They wanted you to have color — and look white. They wanted ‘high yellow.’ We didn’t get to see Black women as dark as Helen, so I think for that reason she also took off. You name it, they wanted Helen Williams.”
Helen Marie Williams was born on Sept. 16, 1935, in Burlington County, N.J., and grew up in East Riverton, a Delaware River town about 15 miles northeast of Philadelphia. Her father, Ellis L. Williams, was a chauffeur; her mother, Helen (Blackstone) Williams, a homemaker.
After high school, Helen found a job as an assistant at Pagano Studios, a commercial photography studio in Manhattan used by catalogs and advertising agencies. Bert Pagano, the owner, also specialized in children’s photography. Ms. Williams eventually worked as a stylist there, and often hired the models. Ms. Darden recalled being hired by her for a catalog shoot, and showing up in her typical uniform, slacks and no makeup.
“It was not a bandbox look, and Helen did not approve,” said Ms. Darden. “She came from the era of gloves and matching purses and hose, with an extra pair stored in your bag in case you got a run.”
Ms. Williams had a brief, early marriage to John Clayton Anderson. She married Norman Jackson, a men’s clothing salesman, in 1977. He died in 2017.
When Ms. Williams retired from modeling in the 1970s, she continued styling and had her own company, H & H Fashion, with Henry Castro, a photographer, working mostly for women’s clothing catalogs.
“Helen Williams was my inspiration,” Bethann Hardison, the fashion model — another alum of the Battle of Versailles — and activist whose recent documentary, “Invisible Beauty,” chronicles her history in the industry, wrote in an email. “Much respect. She was it.”