Why Ebony Magazine’s Archives Were Saved

The famed chronicler of black American life commissioned some of the most important photos in history—and they were almost lost to the public.

John H. Johnson started his publishing empire with a $500 loan. The immensity of the Johnson Publishing Company archives will offer crucial insight into the African American experience. (Bettmann / Contributor)

In a 1968 photograph taken by Moneta Sleet Jr., a veiled and stoic Coretta Scott King comforts her youngest child at the funeral of her husband, Martin Luther King Jr. It is 5-year-old Bernice King’s eyes lingering in the camera’s gaze that haunt the viewer. The image, which was disseminated via dozens of wires, would become one of Sleet’s most iconic pictures. But it almost wasn’t taken: When arrangements for press-pool access to the funeral neglected to include a black photographer, Coretta Scott King insisted that Sleet—who’d photographed the King family for Ebony magazine since 1955—be let in or no press would be allowed inside at all. The picture won Sleet the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography in 1969. He became the first African American photographer and journalist to receive the award.

Sleet is just one photographer who has pieces from his extensive body of work in the archives of the Johnson Publishing Company, which for more than 70 years was the foremost chronicler of African American life and culture in mass-communication media. John H. Johnson started his publishing empire with a $500 loan, launching Negro Digest (later renamed Black World) in 1942. Building on the success of the periodical, he launched Ebony magazine in 1945, and later Jet magazine in 1951. As Life magazine ascended in popularity among the white American middle class and depicted a new consumerist ideal, quotidian black American culture was conspicuously absent from the narratives. Ebony, Johnson said, aimed to “show not only the Negroes but also white people that Negroes got married, had beauty contests, gave parties, ran successful businesses, and did all the other normal things of life.”

In 2016, Ebony was sold to a private-equity firm. And in April, after a decade of struggling with the shift of publishing in the digital era, the Johnson Publishing Company filed for bankruptcy, arranging to put its photo archives (valued at $46 million in 2015) up for sale. Last week, after much anxiety over the fate of nearly 4 million historic photographs, those archives were sold at auction for $30 million to a consortium of the nation’s leading private foundations. The archives will be donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Getty Research Institute. “If the sale had not been acquired through the partnership of the four foundations, it would have been deeply disappointing, to say the least, to archivists whose work it is to not only organize and preserve archival material but to make them accessible,” Jina DuVernay, a visiting archivist of African American collections at Emory University, told me via email. “The worst case scenario would have been that the Ebony photo archive would be sold to a private owner and no one would have access to the vast images. Without the images, future generations would not have the evidence, documentation, and the wealth of knowledge that can be acquired from the photographs.”

It is hard to overstate the ubiquity of Ebony and Jet magazines in black households and businesses across America from the 1950s through the late 1990s. (My grandmother gifted me a subscription when I was away at college, insistent that I remain plugged in to the affairs, trends, and consciousness of black people.) These publications showcased casual and intimate portraits of celebrities and community leaders in black-and-white or four-color spreads, fashion photography, and commercial ads depicting black families. Their visual language challenged white-supremacist ideas, and affirmed for black people that they, too, were part of America, even under the constraints of a racist, segregated society.

Ebony and Jet, through the lenses of their photographers, struck a balance in presenting the nuances and complexities of modern black American life. “Through images we see resilience and survival,” Deborah Willis, the chair of the department of photography and imaging at New York University, wrote to me via email. Also included in the archives acquisition, Willis noted, are Gordon Parks’s 1947 photographs, which dramatized the famous doll-test study by the sociologists Kenneth and Mamie Phipps Clark. (The Clarks documented the long-term psychological effects of segregation on African American children, and their study was a noted factor in the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education.)

David Jackson’s transformative photographs of Emmett Till’s open-casket funeral, during which the boy’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, grieved over his brutally beaten corpse, are also part of the collection. Appearing in Jet in 1955, the photographs showcasing the savageness of Till’s murder have been noted as one of the catalysts of the civil-rights movement. Though the images weren’t seen in mainstream publications until decades later, the print run of that Jet issue sold out, and the pictures were reprinted widely in the black press.

The Johnson Publishing Company archives will present scholars with new opportunities to explore the creative processes of the Ebony and Jet editorial staffs, as well as the crafts of the photographers in their employ. For much of the first half of the 20th century, the dominant culture’s conception of black people was mired in racist tropes, exaggerated and dehumanizing characterizations that transmitted criminality and incivility. A kind of cultural and visual literacy emerged with Ebony’s and Jet’s rich photography, and countered the derisive representation of black life. “These images show how Black people lived … It shows what they wore, who they celebrated, their issues of concern and so much more,” DuVernay said. For the viewing public, this collection will help expose the richness and plurality of American people.