‘Ebony’ and ‘Jet’ Magazines’ Iconic Photos Captured Black Life in America

Getty and the Smithsonian will now share ownership of the two magazines’ renowned photo archives

James Brown
Singer James Brown off stage near Memphis, Tennessee Ted Williams / Johnson Publishing Company Archive, courtesy of the Ford Foundation, J. Paul Getty Trust, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Smithsonian Institution

For seven decades, Ebony and Jet magazines printed compelling stories and vivid photographs depicting Black life and culture in America. At a time when mainstream media and pop culture focused on white audiences, the two publications, published by the Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Company starting in the 1940s and ’50s, offered an authentic window into the Black experience.

Now, the magazines’ iconic photo archives are one step closer to being accessible by the public. A consortium of philanthropic organizations officially transferred the publishing company’s archive to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and the Getty Research Institute, the groups announced last week.

Experts are now hard at work digitizing and conserving the publishing company’s expansive archive of photos, negatives, slides and other photographic artifacts so that journalists, scholars and members of the general public can soon access and study them.

“For those of us who grew up with Ebony and Jet on our coffee tables, in the barbershop and beauty salon, and on newsstands, we know firsthand how these publications—and the Johnson Publishing Company company—shaped our understanding of African American culture,” Kevin Young, the NMAAHC’s director, tells Smithsonian magazine. “It is an incredible honor to be able to continue to share that story and that history—much of which remains to be fully explored—with the public and with future generations of scholars and students.”

In 2019, the Ford Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Mellon Foundation joined together to buy the publishing company’s archives for $30 million as part of a bankruptcy sale. At the time, the groups announced their plan to donate the archive to the NMAAHC and the Getty Research Institute once the sale was finalized.

Now, they’re making good on that promise—and, in doing so, they’re preserving the historic collection of images for years to come. Over the last three years, archivists led by Steven D. Booth have been diligently preparing for the archive’s transfer and planning for its future.

Eartha Kitt
Singer and actress Eartha Kitt Johnson Publishing Company / Courtesy of the Ford Foundation, J. Paul Getty Trust, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Mellon Foundation and Smithsonian Institution

All told, the archive includes more than 3 million photo negatives and slides, 983,000 photographs, 166,000 contact sheets and 9,000 audio and visual recordings, which makes it the most comprehensive collection chronicling modern Black history in America in the 20th century. Jet and Ebony’s award-winning photographers captured iconic images of Black celebrities and leaders, from Ray Charles and Muhammad Ali to Rosa Parks and Billie Holiday.

The magazines also documented the civil rights movement and made strategic publishing decisions to help shine a light on the plight of Black Americans. Jet, for instance, published a photograph of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s mangled body lying in his casket, a move that “forced millions of Americans to reckon with the country’s racism,” as Tessa Solomon writes for ARTnews. Ebony staff photographer Moneta Sleet Jr. also became the first Black Pulitzer Prize winner for his photograph of Coretta Scott King at her husband’s funeral in 1968.

“This archive, especially photographically, is the archive of record for Black America from immediately after the Second World War probably until the 1970s or early ’80s,” Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch told Smithsonian magazine’s Jackie Mansky in 2019. “Almost any story that has touched Black America, whether it’s celebratory, whether it’s tragedy, that is material that we expect to be in there. So this is really an opportunity to understand a full range of the African American experience.”

The Getty Trust has pledged $30 million to help process and digitize the archive, work that is already underway now. Some of the archive, which will primarily be housed at the NMAAHC in Washington, D.C., will be made publicly available as the digitization process continues. The NMAAHC also hopes to open a small exhibition based on the archive this fall, reports J.S. Marcus for the Art Newspaper.

A portion of the archive will remain permanently in Chicago, where the Johnson Publishing Company was headquartered for decades. In 1942, in the midst of Jim Crow, John and Eunice Johnson founded the company with a $500 loan using John’s mother’s furniture as collateral. The successful venture eventually became the most powerful Black-owned publishing company in the country, with publications like the Negro Digest, Ebony and Jet.

But the company began struggling after John Johnson’s death in 2005. It sold its historic Michigan Avenue headquarters in 2010; six years later, it sold Ebony and Jet to a private equity firm. In 2019, the company filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation.

Thanks to the acquisition and recent ownership transfer, however, the company’s influential archives will live on.

“The one thing I know as a historian is that often history is lost,” Bunch told Smithsonian. “It’s lost with the trash. It’s lost with fires. And it’s lost when businesses are no longer able to maintain themselves. So I think it’s important to remember that part of the goal of the Smithsonian is to not just collect, but to help other places preserve so that we make sure that the stories of history are really never lost.”

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