‘HISTORIC’ MOMENTS: Millions of iconic images, recordings from Ebony, Jet slated to be archived

By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — If only a single source existed where you could find 70-plus years of Black arts and culture — a celebrated history told through millions of rare or never-seen images and audio-visual recordings.

Rejoice: Soon it will be so.

Three years after a consortium consisting of the Ford Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution announced plans to preserve the highly coveted Johnson Publishing Company photo archive, the official transfer of sole ownership has been completed.

The transfer was announced on July 28.

Through stories and photos, Ebony and Jet, two of Johnson Publishing’s flagship publications, chronicled the lives of Black politicians, writers, athletes, civil rights leaders, musicians, athletes and everyday people, while concurrently addressing the serious lack of Black representation in popular culture and the media.

In both Ebony, a glossy monthly, and Jet, a news weekly, iconic pictures regularly appeared of the civil rights movement and celebrities like Aretha Franklin, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Sidney Poitier, Eartha Kitt, as well as newsmakers like activist Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

The archive includes Jet photographer David Jackson’s 1955 iconic image of Mamie Till looking into the casket of her 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, and Moneta Sleet Jr.’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of Coretta Scott King hugging her daughter, Bernice, at MLK’s funeral in 1968.

The unmatched, rich collection of 4 million prints and negatives, documenting the experience of Black people over seven decades, embodies the modern history of Black people in the United States and is considered the most extensive photo assemblage to chronicle 20th-century African-American life.

The consortium agreed to donate the archive to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and to the Getty Research Institute.

While the archive is now jointly owned by the two entities who are sharing in the collection’s care and processing, it will physically be housed at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., ensuring its availability for public access.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in September 2016, is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive cultural destination dedicated solely to studying, documenting and presenting African-American history and its impact on American and world history.

California’s Getty Research Institute, a program of the J. Paul Getty Trust, works to advance knowledge and understanding of art and its history through its research, exhibition and publication programs. It houses the Getty Library, one of the largest art and architecture libraries in the world. The library collection includes nearly 900,000 volumes of books, journals and auction catalogs spanning the history of Western art and related areas of the humanities.

Getty Research Institute has committed $30 million in support for the processing and digitization of the archive.

The digitization of the collection is being done to ensure that it’s available and searchable for scholars, researchers, journalists and the general public.

Reportedly, parts of the archive will already be in progress and will be open to the public during the ongoing rigorous progress.

“For decades, Ebony and Jet documented stories about Black celebrity, fashion, and the civil rights movement, and provided African Americans with an opportunity to see an authentic public representation of themselves while also offering the world a broader glimpse into the African American experience,” said Kevin Young, Andrew W Mellon director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. “Our museum is proud that this important and iconic collection of African-American images will be housed in our museum and preserved for generations to study, observe and enjoy.”

The photographic archive includes more than 3 million photo negatives and slides, 983,000 photographs, 166,000 contact sheets and 9,000 audio and visual recordings.

Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, said the consortium is “pleased to assure that this historical treasure remains available for inspection and study.”

“Both Getty and the Smithsonian have worked diligently over the past three years to securely house the Johnson Publishing archives, begin the digital archiving process, and plan the future of the archive so these important stories can be shared freely with all,” he said.

“We are proud to partner with the Getty Trust, Smithsonian, Mellon, and MacArthur foundations to honor the historic legacy of Ebony, Jet, and the Johnson Publishing Company,” said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. “Your contributions to Black American cultural landscape are second to none and we are excited to help preserve that record for future generations.”

The group bought the archive in 2019 for $30 million as part of an auction to pay off secured creditors of Johnson Publishing Company.

Since the consortium’s purchase, the entire collection has been carefully housed in Chicago for ongoing conservation and select exhibitions and programs. Chicago was the headquarters for the Johnson Publishing Company.

The company was founded in 1942 by businessman John H. Johnson. While Ebony and Jet were sold in 2016, Johnson Publishing Company retained ownership of the archive.

After the iconic company went into bankruptcy protection in 2019, the consortium stepped in and purchased the archive at auction.

In determining the archive’s final disposition, the consortium was guided by an advisory board of 11 experts, led by Carla Hayden, the 14th Librarian of Congress, who represents extensive expertise in film and photography, African-American history, and conservation to help determine the proper course of historical collection management.

The advisory board made recommendations on the archive’s future, including its permanent location, curatorial planning, opportunities for partnership and collaborative collaboration, and public and scholarly engagement, which helped chart a path for the long-term care of the extensive catalog of works.

Notwithstanding the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, a Getty-funded team of Chicago-based archivists led by Steven D. Booth carefully assessed, cataloged, and began the digitization process of the archival holdings.

While the collection will be primarily housed at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a portion of the archive relevant to Chicago history and culture is expected to be housed permanently in Chicago.

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.


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