Photo Essays

An Essential History Immortalized in the Archive of Ebony and Jet

The archive of Ebony and Jet is a treasure trove of visual culture; its donation to the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Getty Research Institute will allow unprecedented access to decades of Black American history.

1954 Funmakers Ball participants Eddie McClennon, Bobbie Laney, 1st place winner for “Best Costume’ and Toni Evans pose for a photo. The annual event was held at the Rockland Palace in New York. (G. Marshall Wilson/EBONY Collection)

Over the last 70 years, Ebony and Jet magazines served as incomparable records of Black politics, fashion, beauty, music, sports, and culture, becoming essential fixtures in African American households. Last week, the expansive archive of these major chroniclers of African American life was sold for $30 million, and its contents will be donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and the Getty Research Institute — an outcome that has allowed researchers, historians, and the public to breathe a sigh of relief. 

In the week before the sale, the Ford Foundation; the J. Paul Getty Trust; the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation banded together to make the $30 million purchase. They will donate the archive of over four million prints and negatives, which has been largely inaccessible to researchers in past years, to the NMAAHC and Getty Research Institute, to preserve the collection and increase public access to it.

Triggering bus strike, Angela Davis button was worn by Black bus drivers in Pittsburgh. (Norman L. Hunter/EBONY Collection)

John Edwin Mason, a professor of African history and photography, told Hyperallergic in a phone call that he was “absolutely elated” when he heard that the four organizations had purchased the “immensely valuable historical archive” with intentions to donate it to the nonprofits. He says fellow researchers had worried of possible “disaster scenarios” prior to the sale, worrying that a private collector could purchase the archive to keep it private, license the images to a commercial outfit, or “break it up and sell it off as individual pieces.” Instead, he says, “The collection will stay together, the collection will be properly archived, and the collection will go to an institution where it should be. All of these are really incredibly positive things.”

Clark Terry walks with his son Rudolph under the Apollo Theater marquee after Terry’s first stage show with Duke Ellington’s band in 1955. (G. Marshall Wilson/Johnson Publishing Company)

This is a transformative moment in American photo history as this purchase opens up a wider range of images about black culture than ever before,” wrote Deborah Willis, a photographer, curator, academic, and founder of New York University’s Center for Black Visual Culture, in an email to Hyperallergic. “We all know that that the Ebony photographers’ archive is crucial and to know that this archive will be preserved by two strong entities such as the SI National Museum of American History and Culture and the Getty assures all interested in black visual culture will have access to tell a broader story of American history.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Coretta Scott King consoling her daughter, Bernice, at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968 was taken by Moneta Sleet Jr. The veteran EBONY photographer became the first Black man and the first Black photographer to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1969. (Courtesy Johnson Publishing Company, LLC, All rights reserved.)

John H. Johnson, the late founder of Ebony and Jet, established the magazines in the 1940s and ’50s, and they rapidly became integral parts of Black livelihoods, journalism, and culture.

In 1955, following the murder of Emmett Till, Jet published an open-casket image of the slain 14-year-old at the request of his mother, who told the funeral director: “Let the people see what I’ve seen.” The image is often credited as an essential component that helped launch the Civil Rights Movement. In 1968, Ebony published Moneta Sleet Jr.’s image of Coretta Scott King cradling her daughter, Bernice, at her husband Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. Sleet subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography, becoming the first Black man and Black photographer to win a Pulitzer. Other crucial images of civil rights icons like Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, and Rosa Parks found homes in the glossy pages of these magazines.

“There is no greater repository of the history of the modern African American experience than this archive,” said James Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, to the New York Times. “Saving it and making it available to the public is a great honor and a grave responsibility.”

Ray Charles plays dominoes by feel with Herman Roberts. (David Jackson/EBONY Collection)

The magazines’ impact on contemporary visual culture has sustained. In 2014, the Studio Museum in Harlem opened a group exhibition, Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet and Contemporary Art, drawing attention to their sustained influence on contemporary visual art. Lorna Simpson and Ellen Gallagher, whose work often draws from archival images of Black women in the 20th century, were among the artists featured. More recently, in the center of Lorna Simpson’s exhibition Darkening at Hauser & Wirth, stood a tall stack of the vintage publications.

Author James Baldwin photographed leaving his home. (G. Marshall Wilson/Johnson Publishing Company)

The sale was organized to pay off creditors of Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Company, which founded the magazines in the mid-20th century and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in April. The company owed $13.6 million to Capital V Holdings (controlled by George Lucas and Mellody Hobson), which loaned Johnson Publishing $12 million in 2015. In 2015, the collection was appraised at $46 million.

Linda Johnson Rice, chairwoman of Johnson Publishing and daughter of its late founder, said the decision to sell the archive had been made before the company filed for bankruptcy. “It just needs to be in the hands of a place that can give it the exposure it deserves,” she told the New York Times. “It’s not right to sit on this for ourselves. It’s not doing that much good.”

Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the NMAAHC and secretary of the Smithsonian, said in a statement that, “Together, our organizations will ensure these images, stories and the history of these publications are well-preserved and available to the public and future generations.”

Acclaimed and legendary opera singer Leontyne Price reflects on notes following success of
opera. (G. Marshall Wilson/ EBONY Collection)
Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks during early days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1956. (Moneta Sleet, Jr/Johnson Publishing Company)
Boxing great Muhammad Ali is photographed in full swing against opponent Floyd Patterson in December 1965 fight. (Herbert Nipson/ EBONY Collection)

“The Ebony and Jet archive, it’s been essentially closed forever. It’s been very very hard for people to work in it, very, very hard to get a sense, even, of what’s there,” Mason said. “The archive is much larger than what’s been published in either Ebony or Jet — those undoubted riches that are there that will finally, in the not too distant future, be accessible.” He calls the donation “a way that we will be able to see the history of the United States in the 20th and 21st centuries.”

He concluded, “It’s a terrific, terrific, possibility.”

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