Story at a glance
- Millions of photos and other records have been preserved for the public thanks to a group of major charities.
- The collection includes a who’s who of prominent African Americans as well as poignant looks at daily life through much of the 20th century.
- The archives will be invaluable to researchers and artists and other creators.
In July, the media archives of Ebony and Jet magazines, consisting of more than 4 million images and almost 10,000 hours of music and video, were auctioned off by Johnson Publishing Company to pay off debts after declaring bankruptcy in April. The company sold the magazines in 2016 to private equity firm Clear View Group, which continues to publish online versions of the magazines as Ebony Media Corporation.
The collection was purchased for $30 million by a consortium made up of the Ford Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The archives, which Ford Foundation president Darren Walker called a national treasure, include not only iconic images such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of Coretta Scott King and her daughter at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral and the photo of Emmett Till’s maimed body in his coffin that fueled the civil rights movement, but also everyday moments. While the collection includes many celebrity photos such as one of Ray Charles playing dominoes “by feel” and a touching photo of Thurgood Marshall, his wife and newborn son, less well-known figures are also found in the carefully categorized and archived folders and boxes with labels such as “Easter Parade.”
Richard Watson, artist-in-residence at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, points out that while “anyone who made it big and was black made it on the cover,” the magazines also included local and national news.
“Reporters captured many things you wouldn’t otherwise know were going on in places like Detroit and Chicago,” he says. “Black life was not represented in mass media.”
Ivan Henderson, vice president of programming at the museum, says these publications were part of growing up. Found in every doctor’s office and barbershop, they not only provided “a great source of information, but also knit together the cultural fabric of black America.” Unlike many other publications, these magazines stuck around to be read long past their publication date.
“Older issues are just as important as the new, sometimes more so,” says Watson. “People who were recognized in their day are being uncovered now as those who made America great, such as Katherine Johnson of ‘Hidden Figures.’ [Some stories were] write-ups on small towns. They are a testament to the fact that [these] people did not spring up overnight. They were making advances all along. Not just athletes and actors, but also little people along the way.”
Several years ago, the African American Museum in Philadelphia had an exhibition called “Jet Black, Brown and Tan,” a retrospective on the Johnson Publishing company.
“We looked at the covers, but also inside the magazine, at the content,” Henderson says. “It was an instant love affair with our audiences. Those who, like me, remembered certain issues but also those who didn’t know about this history for whatever reason were pleasantly surprised to see this well-organized history of African American life and trends and culture in this country.
“Now that we have scholarly and archival respect for many of these items, museums are able to think about them even more seriously and use the whole publication, both the words on the pages and what is behind it, [to illustrate] what it meant as a moment in history for these things to be published and distributed.”
Henderson sees the collection being used in an exhibition setting, along a number of thematic lines, but also envisions “folks sitting down and closely reading documents or tracking some of the history around those moments in time, then using those documents to prop up or prove some of their arguments.”
He also expects this collection to spark “an explosion of artistic creativity. A new community of creators and makers will look at these originally analog objects, black and whites in many cases, and have a very three dimensional and 21st century reaction to them in terms of interpretation or inspiration.”
Watson agrees, saying the magazines have fueled his own creativity and inspired his work as a collage artist. He insists that the “old” has value, even for young people.
“As a kid I went into music stores and bought classical music records,” which were different from the more modern jazz and blues everyone was listening to then. Watson believes that looking back into the past “broadens one’s aperture for educating one’s self.”
The African American Museum in Philadelphia is home to the Jack T. Franklin Photography collection. Franklin, a 20th century photographer, donated his 500,000 plus photos and negatives to the museum in 1986. He is known for his coverage of political and social movements in Philadelphia and the South, as well as portraits of celebrities and U.S. presidents.
Henderson believes there may be some Franklin photos in the Ebony and Jet archives and sees a unique opportunity to connect pieces from the archives, temporally or thematically, to the Franklin collection.
“As a Smithsonian affiliate, as an African American museum and the oldest of its type,” he says, “we hope to be at the table, to be able to have access to those things but also to do innovative things with them and show what partners like us can do in our local regions.”
The presence of Franklin, Pittsburgh photographer Teenie Harris or any prominent Pennsylvania and regional photographers will also help generate excitement locally.
Plus, Henderson says, “Occasionally we discover something new about old history. We can use these archives and these objects to help us tell those stories to a new public.”
“So many collections and remnants from black legacies have been lost over the years,” says Henderson. “I think the photos and/or whatever goes with them will be greatly enriching but will also lead the way for others to create space and understand that these types of materials should be taken seriously and preserved. We lose parts of ourselves when we lose evidence of these moments in history.”
While the consortium has not yet indicated specific plans for the collection, there are plans to digitize it and make it available to the public, both online and in museums. The items will be placed under the stewardship of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Getty Research Institute and other cultural institutions.