Ownership of the Johnson Publishing Company Archive, which includes the photographic archives of Ebony and Jet magazines, has been formally transferred jointly to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and the Getty Research Institute. Sold for $30 million in 2019, academics, archivists, and artists were reassured to learn that the vast trove would pass into the hands of institutions committed to preserving and facilitating public access to it after extended anxiety that it would be won at auction by private collectors.
Purchased by a consortium of four entities — the Ford Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation — the archive was donated to the NMAAHC and the Getty Research Institute, and will be physically housed at the NMAAHC in Washington, DC. The extensive archive includes over four million prints and negatives, which up until now have been widely inaccessible to the public. The Getty Trust is further committing $30 million to the organization and digitization of the archive, which will allow researchers easier access to its holdings.
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“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.”
In the wake of the end of World War II, entrepreneur John H. Johnson founded Ebony in a bid to represent Black people positively in American media, which was rife with stereotypical depictions or — equally harmfully — gaping non-representation. If White people could celebrate their lifestyles and celebrities in magazines like Life, Johnson’s objective was to craft a media sphere that Black readers could similarly enter into. It was no accident that Ebony’s covers looked a lot like Life’s, except it featured the faces of Black Americans: Johnson’s ambition, reportedly, was to create a magazine for Black America that would rival the “trailblazing Life magazine.” With Ebony, and six years later Jet — a news and current events weekly — Johnson tapped into the aspirations of a rising Black middle class that liked reading about the accomplishments of the Black community. “We believed then — and we believe now — that image power is a prerequisite of economic and political power,” Johnson wrote in a publisher’s statement three decades after the publication of the first issue of Ebony.
“We like to look at the zesty side of life,” editors of Ebony’s first issue declared. “Sure, you can get all hot and bothered about the race question (and don’t think we don’t), but not enough is said about all the swell things we Negroes can do and will accomplish. Ebony will try to mirror the happier side of Negro life — the positive, everyday achievements from Harlem to Hollywood.”
Ebony and Jet quickly took off. By the early 1960s, 79% of Black people who lived in cities were estimated to have read at least one of every six Ebony issues. Its glossy pages were filled with stories of Black musicians, performers, businesspeople, politicians, and athletes. Celebrities like Muhammad Ali, Eartha Kitt, Nat King Cole, and Aretha Franklin were documented by staff photographers in a signature style that often showed subjects at ease, at work, or at play. Non-celebrity professionals who achieved some level of success and repute were also often spotlighted, including engineers, doctors, bankers, and lawyers. Civil rights activists ranging from Rosa Parks to Angela Davis were depicted with a warmth and familiarity absent in other publications. Writers like James Baldwin and Maya Angelou were captured with intimacy and humor born out of palpable trust.
“Then Ebony arrived in 1945 … to inform us and assure us that our lives were so important, they could never be edited out of the history of our people,” Maya Angelou wrote in the eponymously titled article “Then Ebony Arrived,” published in the magazine in 1995.
Ebony and Jet were also important catalysts of social change. In 1955, Jet published David Jackson’s photographs of Emmett Till in his casket — his 14-year-old body thoroughly brutalized by the White men who tortured and killed him — upon his mother’s insistence that the world be shown evidence of what had been done to her son. Till was shown thoughtfully dressed, the contrast between the savage violence of White supremacy and the loving care of his grieving mother on stark display. The publication of those photographs, which would have been unimaginable in most other publications at the time, played an important role in the progression of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Soon, they’ll finally be shared with the public as key constituents of the broader story of the United States in the 20th century.