Photo by John H. White
A consortium of foundations placed the winning bid to purchase the archive of Johnson Publishing Company (JPC), publisher of the iconic Ebony and Jet magazines.
The archive, which includes more than 4 million prints and negatives comprising the most significant collection of photographs cataloguing African-American life in the 20th century, was purchased for $30 million as part of an auction of the assets of JPC in connection with its Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing.
The foundation consortium – the Ford Foundation, The J. Paul Getty Trust, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation – will donate the archives to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Getty Research Institute, and other leading cultural institutions for the public benefit to ensure the broadest access for the general public and use by scholars, researchers, journalists, and other interested parties.
Speaking after the sale, Ford Foundation president Darren Walker said, “We’re thrilled with the outcome. This archive is a national treasure and one of tremendous importance to the telling of black history in America. We felt it was imperative to preserve these images, to give them the exposure they deserve and make them readily available to the public.”
“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. “Saving it and making it available to the public is a great honor and a grave responsibility.”
The sale of the archive is a coda to the story of a company of great significance to the African American community. Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Mellon Foundation, added that the partnership to preserve and make publicly available this profound collection of African American history and culture represented a tremendous opportunity. “The preservation and accessibility of this singular and remarkable photographic archive exemplifies Mellon’s values and is of immeasurable service to picturing the vast and varied range of African American life.”
“This iconic and unique collection will stand the test of time, documenting an essential part of American history over an extraordinary period,” said MacArthur president Julia Stasch. “We are pleased to collaborate to acquire the archive and to preserve it for the benefit of scholars, the public, and future generations forever.”
Johnson Publishing’s iconic archive offers a remarkable insight into everyday of life in Black America – up-close and personal pictures of artists, celebrities and leaders which provided much needed representation in the media. The historic images also capture moments of grief and horror like the mutilated body of Emmett Till in his coffin and Coretta Scott King at her husband’s funeral.
The catalog will be transferred to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Getty Research Institute, pending final disposition.
“The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is proud to collaborate with the consortium and the Getty Research Institute on this important endeavor to preserve and share the richness of these iconic publications,” said Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the museum and Secretary of the Smithsonian. “Ebony and Jet magazine helped shape our nation’s history, allowing Americans – of all colors – to see the full panorama of the African-American experience. 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.”