Foundations buy Johnson Publishing Company’s extensive photo archive


The museum of African American History in Washington will display many of the photos

by Frederick H. Lowe


A consortium of foundations has purchased the photo archives of Ebony and Jet magazines for $30 million at auction during a bankruptcy filing. The sale was announced July 25th

The consortium includes, J. Paul Getty Trust, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Andrew Mellon Foundation and the Ford Foundation. They purchased the photo archive from Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Co. which filed for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy protection on April 9, 2019.

The photo archive includes more than 4 million prints, negatives and photographic materials compiled over more than 70 years. Some of the archive will be donated to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. for historians and other interested parties to study.

The  J. Paul Getty Trust, which is based in Los Angeles, will oversee the digitization and dissemination of the archive, a spokesperson for the Getty Trust tells BlackmansStreet.Today.

“It is too early to say how much  of the archive will be digitized  and when and how it will be physically stored, but the ultimate goal is sharing between both institutions—the Getty Research Institute and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture– and broad access to the public online as well as through publications, research  and exhibitions,” the spokesperson said.

Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation, said, ” We’re thrilled with the outcome. This archive is a national treasure and one  of tremendous importance to the telling of the black history of America.”

James Cunco, president of the Getty Trust, added, “There is no greater repository  of the history of the modern African-American experience than this archive  Saving it and making it available to the public is a great honor and a grave responsibility.”

Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, said “Ebony and Jet magazine helped shaped our nation’s history, allowing Americans -of all colors–to see the full panorama of the African American experience.” Bunch now is Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

Ebony covers

The photos included Coretta Scott King at her husband Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral service and Emmett Till’s mutilated body in an open casket.

John H. Johnson, a brilliant businessman, entrepreneur and courageous journalist, founded his Chicago-based company with the 1942 publication of Negro Digest, a pocketbook size magazine that focused on the black arts movement. Mr. Johnson wrote about Negro Digest in his biography “Succeeding Against the Odds,” co-written by Lerone Bennett Jr., executive editor of Ebony.


Cover of Negro Digest.  Later, Mr. Johnson changed the name to Black World and widened the magazine’s subject matter
Black World


Founded by Mr. Johnson in 1951, Ebony was a coffee-table-size monthly magazine with a circulation of more than 8 million. It  featured an abundance of glossy photos.

Jet magazine, a pocket-size weekly also founded in 1951, featured a centerfold of a beautiful black woman wearing a swimsuit. He also founded the short-lived magazine Ebony Man . The company also published Ebony Jr! for children, which was available  in print and online.

Jet Magazine


Some blacks complained about the articles in Ebony and Jet, but I never walked into a black home where one or both publications weren’t prominently displayed on the living room coffee table. This was important because Mr. Johnson had found the key to getting black people to read. When I was growing up, it wasn’t unusual to walk into a black home and not see a newspaper or a book.

Mr. Johnson, however, really understood black men and black women. He knew they suffered emotional and physical trauma daily, such as being followed in stores by security guards and stopped for no reason by police.

So Ebony’s covers often featured celebrities on the cover to entice blacks to pick up the  the magazine.

As the black community became more militant, and chanting Black Power, the covers reflected that change in attitude.

Ebony  and Jet led the white media to discover the black community. When I joined the Chicago Tribune as a reporter in 1973, white reporters and editors told me the Tribune did not cover any news south of Roosevelt Road, which was the black community. When the sale of Ebony’s and Jet’s photo archive was announced, black newspapers and magazines reprinted their stories from the Chicago Tribune.

Ebony Man with Actor Will Smith on the cover and an article about black men and prostate cancer

Johnson Publishing Co. sold Ebony and Jet in 2016 to Clear View Group, a private equity firm, based in Texas but the Johnson Publishing kept the photo archives.

Mr. Johnson renamed Negro Digest Black World. The magazine folded April 3, 1976.

Mr. Johnson founded his publishing, cosmetics and fashion empire with $500 borrowed on his mother’s furniture. He believed in the capitalist system. On the cover of his book were the words “The American Dream Still Lives….”

I once attended Ebony Fashion Fair.  It was one of the places, if not the only place, where one could see black male and female models.

I met and interviewed Mr. Johnson when I was a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. He called me to tell how much he enjoyed the story.  I was honored.

I took my visiting mom, dad and sister on a tour of Johnson Publishing Company’s headquarters located on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. Mr. Johnson walked out of his office to talk with the visitors. I thought my mom was going to faint.

I considered Mr. Johnson a courageous journalist when Jet published the gut-wrenching photograph of a badly beaten and disfigured 14- year-old Emmett Till in his open casket.

Carolyn Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam brutally murdered Till and threw his weighted body into Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River, thinking it would sink to the river bottom and never be found, but it floated to the surface. Carolyn Bryant accused Till of flirting with her, which led to his murder. Years later, she admitted she lied.

Mr. Johnson’s biography “Succeeding Against the Odds”

Till’s murder gave Rosa Parks the strength to  push the envelope on the next phase of the Civil Rights movement.

In the book “The Thunder of Angels: The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the People Who Broke the Back of Jim Crow,” Parks said she was thinking about what happened to Emmett Till when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her refusal led to a more than year long city wide bus boycott and sparked the Civil Rights movement.

There is a  marker honoring Till in Mississippi on the spot where rescuers pulled his body from the Tallahatchie River

But things haven’t charged.  The other day, three white Ole Miss students stood in front of the of the bullet- riddled marker holding rifles with smiles on their faces.





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