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Foundations buy Ebony and JET photo archives for preservation at Smithsonian

Free Press wire reports | 8/2/2019, 6 a.m.
The sale of the photo archive of Ebony and JET magazines chronicling African-American history is generating relief among some who ...

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 is also causing some to mourn because the images, including photos of Emmett Till in 1955 after he was killed and ones documenting the rise of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., won’t fully be in the hands of an African-American- owned entity.

“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.”

For more than a half century, Ebony and JET magazines stood as the epitome of a black-owned business. 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 Co.

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.

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Mr. Walker

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Ms. Alexander

The Smithsonian is expected to be the public steward of what is considered one of the most significant collections of photographs cataloguing 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, Darren Walker and Elizabeth Alexander, both of whom are African-American. 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 Mr. Walker of the Ford Foundation and Ms. Alexander of the Mellon Foundation said the sale was important to them personally.

“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,” Ms. 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 pocket-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 teen suffered at the hands of white men in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman.