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Sale of Ebony and Jet Photo Archives Sparks Both Relief and Anxiety

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The sale of the photo archive of Ebony and Jet magazines chronicling African American history is generating relief among some who worried the historic images may be lost. But it's also causing some to mourn the fact that the prints won't fully be in the hands of an African American-owned entity. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The sale of the photo archive of Ebony and Jet magazines chronicling African American history is generating relief among some who worried the historic images may be lost.

But it’s also causing some to mourn since the images, including photos of Emmett Till in 1955 after he was killed and ones documenting the rise of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., won’t fully be in the hands an African American-owned entity. Ebony and Jet, for more than half a century, stood as the epitome of black-owned business.

“You have to do what you have to do,” Roy Douglas Malonson, publisher of the Houston-based African American News & Issues newspaper, said. “But it’s sad because we lose control forever.”

The Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. McArthur Foundation, The J. Paul Getty Trust and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation are buying the archive for $30 million as part of an auction to pay off secured creditors of Johnson Publishing Company.

Chicago-based Johnson Publishing, the owner of the archives and former publisher of the magazines, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in April.

The foundations plan to donate the more than 4 million prints and negatives to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Getty Research Institute.

The Smithsonian is expected to be the public steward of what is considered one of the most significant collections of photographs cataloging African American life. Getty will be tasked with digitally preserving the trove, some of which remains a mystery.

The deal was shepherded by the presidents of the Ford and Mellon foundations. The two are among the nonprofit sector’s most prominent black leaders and are themselves a rarity in the near exclusively white world of big-money philanthropy.

Both Darren Walker and Elizabeth Alexander said the sale was important to them personally as African Americans.

“What it means to be in a position to be able to be helpful in safeguarding this treasure and our shared history overwhelms me with joy,” Alexander said. “It is very significant.”

Besides black newspapers in cities across the nation, few media outlets dedicated resources to cover events and people connected to African American lifestyle and news as Ebony and Jet magazines. Ebony began publishing regularly just after the end of World War II while the smaller-sized Jet began in 1951 when African Americans in many regions still lived under racial segregation.

Adrienne Samuels Gibbs, a former Ebony magazine staffer, said Ebony and Jet dutifully captured the environment that African Americans were forced to endure over the years.

The collection of 4 million images chronicles the civil rights movement and the lives of prominent figures such as Miles Davis, Muhammad Ali, Nina Simone, and Coretta Scott King at her husband’s funeral. It was Jet in 1955 that published a photo of the open coffin of Emmett Till, showing the effects of the fatal beating the 14-year-old Chicago boy suffered at the hands of white men in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

Gibbs said the photos also show everyday black life — from children playing in city parks to elders praying at rural churches.

“It wasn’t about all poverty and suffering. It was about joy,” Gibbs said.

Ivey McClelland, 57, a musician in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said Ebony and Jet were found in every black home she knew while growing up in Los Angeles. “My uncle, bless his heart, had around 30 to 40 years’ worth of Jet magazines,” she said. “He got them for ‘The Beauty of the Week’.”

But McClelland said the magazines remained dear to her heart for their images connected to key moments in black history. She and her grandmother were in Michigan and Canada when the Watts Riots of 1965 erupted. The first still images she saw of her community in Los Angeles damaged by fires were in Jet, she said.

“My mother kept the special issues of Martin Luther King’s assassination,” McClelland said. “That’s why I hope these foundations save these archives and don’t do anything to appropriate the images.”

Yalanda Lattimore, the host of “Buzz it or Bash It with DryerBuzz,” an Atlanta-based podcast on black issues, said she has been warning listeners and readers of her blog that the archive was in trouble.

“It hurts my heart that Ebony had to sell these archives,” said Lattimore, 53. “But I’m glad foundations are involved. Foundations are the ones who help save archives connected to black history, so I’m hopeful.”

The foundations said whatever the future holds for the Ebony and Jet titles, they are thrilled to have helped secure the magazines’ legacy forever.

“The good news here is that this archive — regardless of the future success of the Johnson publications — will be successful. This archive will be the legacy of the Johnson Publishing Company,” Walker said.


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