The archive of Johnson Publishing, an invaluable collection of photographs depicting African American culture in the 20th century, officially has new ownership.
A philanthropic consortium comprising the Ford Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the MacArthur Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution announced on Thursday that the collection has been transferred to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and the Getty Research Institute.
The two institutions now jointly steward 4 million prints and negatives from Ebony and Jet, the lodestones of Johnson’s portfolio. These images depict candid moments involving iconic Black actors, musicians, fashion models, and writers, as well as ordinary folk who were rarely featured in white publications.
Among the figures to fill the magazines’ pages were Ray Charles, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., Billie Holiday, and Josephine Baker. The entire photo archive will be housed at the NMAAHC and will eventually available for public viewing.
“For decades, Ebony and Jet documented stories of Black celebrity, fashion, and the Civil Rights Movement and provided an opportunity for African Americans to see an authentic public representation of themselves while also offering the world a fuller view of the African American experience,” Kevin Young, the director of the NMAAHC, said in a statement. “Our museum is proud that this significant and iconic collection of African American images will be housed in our museum and preserved for generations to study, observe and enjoy.”
Johnson Publishing, the Chicago-based company that founded Ebony and Jet in 1945 and 1951, respectively, sold both magazines several years ago, but kept ownership of the photo archive. The company considered selling the collection twice, and even had it appraised for $46 million in 2015, but the auction was delayed until 2019, when Johnson filed for bankruptcy.
That year, Johnson revealed plans to put the the collection up for private auction, alarming historians, curators, and fans of the magazines who feared that the photographs would indefinitely disappear from public view. To the relief of many, the NMAAHC and the Getty stepped in that year with plans to turn it into a readily available resource.
Since the consortium’s purchase, the archive has been housed in Chicago for conservation and “select exhibition and programming,” according to the press release. A Chicago-based team of archivists, funded by Getty and led by Steven D. Booth of the Black archivists collective, the Blackivists, have been assessing and cataloging the archive’s holdings.
The Getty Trust has committed $30 million to the digitization efforts.
The photographs include some of the most seminal, searing images in 20th-century American history, such as the picture of Coretta Scott King at her husband’s funeral taken by Ebony staff photographer Moneta Sleet Jr., who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for it, becoming the first Black Pulitzer awardee. Jet also published David Jackson’s photograph of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s mutilated body in his casket. The image forced millions of Americans to reckon with the country’s racism and helped spur the civil rights movement.