by Frederick H. Lowe, BlackmansStreet.Today
Covers of Ebony Magazine
A consortium of foundations has purchased the photo archives of Ebony and Jet magazines for $30 million at auction. The sale was announced July 25th
The consortium includes, J. Paul Getty Trust, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Andrew Mellon Foundation and the Ford Foundation. They purchased the photo archives from Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Co. which filed for Chapter bankruptcy protection on April 9, 2019.
The photo archive includes more than 4 million prints, negatives and photographic materials compiled over more than 70 years. Some of the archives will be donated to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. for historians and other interested parties to study.
The J. Paul Getty Trust, which is based in Los Angeles, was the lead foundation. “There is no greater repository of the history of the modern African American experience than this archive,” said James Cunco, president of the Trust. ” Saving it and making it available to the public is a great honor and a grave responsibility.”
Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, said “Ebony and Jet magazine helped shaped our nation’s history, allowing Americans -of all colors–to see the full panorama of the African American experience.” Bunch now is Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
The photos included Coretta Scott King at her husband Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral service and Emmett Till’s mutilated body in an open casket.
John H. Johnson, a brilliant businessman, entrepreneur and courageous journalist, founded his Chicago-based company with the 1942 publication of Negro Digest, a pocketbook size magazine modeled after Readers Digest. Mr. Johnson wrote about Negro Digest in his biography “Succeeding Against the Odds,” which was co-written by Lerone Bennett Jr., executive editor of Ebony.
Founded by Mr. Johnson in 1951, Ebony was a coffee-table-size monthly magazine with a large circulation of more than 8 million. It featured an abundance of glossy photos.
Jet magazine, a pocket-size weekly also founded in 1951, featured a centerfold of a beautiful black woman wearing a swimsuit. He also founded the short-lived magazine Ebony Man . The company also published Ebony Jr! for children, which was available in print and online.
Some blacks complained about the articles in Ebony and Jet, but I never walked into a black home where one or both publications weren’t prominently displayed on the living room coffee table. This was important because Mr. Johnson had found the key to getting black people to read. When I was growing up, it wasn’t unusual to walk into a black home and not see a newspaper or a book.
Mr. Johnson, however, really understood black men and black women. He knew they suffered mental and physical trauma daily, such as being followed in stories by security guards and stopped for no reason by police.
So Ebony’s covers often featured celebrities on the cover to entice blacks to pick up the the magazine.
As the black community became more militant, and chanting Black Power, the covers reflected that change in attitude.
Ebony and Jet led the white media to discover the black community. When I joined the Chicago Tribune as a reporter in 1973, white reporters and editors told me the Tribune did not cover any news south of Roosevelt Road, which was the black community. When the sale of Ebony’s and Jet’s photo archives was announced, black newspapers and magazines reprinted their stories from the Chicago Tribune.
Johnson Publishing Co. sold Ebony and Jet in 2016 to Clear View Group, a private equity firm, based in Texas but the Johnson Publishing kept the photo archives.