On March 30, 1948, in Oxford, Mississippi, Naomi Ruth Sims was born to John and Elizabeth Sims. She was the youngest of the couple’s three daughters, who included firstborn, Doris, and middle daughter, Betty. Her parents divorced and John, who was said to have worked as a porter, left their family shortly after Naomi was born; sadly, she never knew him.
In order to improve their lives, Elizabeth moved her three daughters to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When Naomi was approximately ten years old, her mother had fallen ill. Naomi was placed into foster care and initially spent time in a group home. She was later reared by a Black couple who lived in the working-class neighborhood of Homewood in Pittsburgh. Although she tried to adjust to her new housing accommodations, Naomi reflected in later years that she didn’t feel welcomed or loved, especially compared to a younger foster daughter who had a fairer complexion. Greatly compounding the hurt felt from being separated from her family was that Elizabeth, who lived less than a mile away, continued to rear Doris and Betty.
Despite this traumatic experience, Naomi was extremely close to her sisters. Upon graduating from Westinghouse High School, she accepted a scholarship to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. In accepting the educational opportunity, in 1966, Naomi moved to New York and lived with her sister, Betty. At FIT, she studied merchandising and textile design; she also matriculated New York University, taking evening classes in psychology. Despite having a scholarship and being assisted by Betty, Naomi acknowledged she needed to supplement her living.
At eighteen years old, she decided to enter the world of modeling, especially as she admired style and fashion. Naomi, who was her full adult height of 5’10” by the time she was thirteen years old, was slim, with deep mahogany skin and prominent features. Although she had been encouraged by her loved ones, friends and a counselor to model, Naomi was hesitant, as there had yet to be a high fashion model who looked like her. Excluding Dorothea Towles Church, who modeled in houses of couture in Paris, France during the 1950s, and Donyale Luna, who was named “Model of the Year” by Vogue in 1966, very few Blacks had crossed the color line in modeling. None certainly had the hue and features of Naomi Sims.