Ebony, Jet photo archives are headed to the Smithsonian

The museum and J. Paul Getty Trust will digitize and make available material that documents African American life for most of the 20th century.

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Rosa Parks, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. behind her, during the early days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956.

Rosa Parks, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. behind her, during the early days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956.

Ebony Collection/The Johnson Archives

The photo archives of Ebony and Jet magazines, a historic treasure documenting the Black experience in the United States for most of the 20th century, is bound for the Smithsonian Institution, but with Chicago-centric parts remaining here.

The deal, assuring the archives will be digitized and made available to the public, was announced by a consortium of foundations that have safeguarded the material. The group bought the archives for $30 million during a bankruptcy auction in 2019.

Most of the images will move to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and to the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. The J. Paul Getty Trust has committed another $30 million to continue digitizing the archives, covering some 3 million photo negatives and slides.

Some material pertinent to the history and culture of Chicago will remain in the city. Executives said they are looking for a suitable place where images can be stored and displayed.

Kristen Mack, communications director for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, said the move will occur over the next few months. While some items were digitized here, she said, work was slowed by the pandemic.

Ebony and Jet were important in African American homes because they “represented not only who you were in everyday life, but also what your aspirations could be,” she said. The magazines were founded by Johnson Publishing Co. in Chicago. Ebony started in 1945, Jet in 1951.

Aside from MacArthur and Getty, other philanthropies involved in the preservation include the Ford and Mellon foundations. The archives include 983,000 photographic prints and 9,000 audio and visual recordings.

“The Johnson Publishing Company Archive captures both the iconic and everyday experience of Black life in 20th century America,” said Carla Hayden, the librarian of Congress. “The conservation and digitization of these materials will benefit countless scholars, professionals and everyday Americans who will be able to access and explore this extraordinary archive.”

MacArthur President John Palfrey said the foundation, with its base in Chicago, is “excited that a material portion of this iconic and unique collection will remain here. And we are confident that the [Smithsonian] and Getty will collaborate with Chicago-based partners to co-steward these resources on behalf of the public and, in particular, the African American community.”

Johnson Publishing sold Ebony and Jet in 2016, prior to its liquidation. The company’s legendary founder, John H. Johnson, died in 2005.

Since 2020, the titles have been owned by former NBA player Ulysses “Junior” Bridgeman, who has continued Ebony as an online publication.

Muhammad Ali batters Floyd Patterson in a 1965 bout.

Muhammad Ali batters Floyd Patterson in a 1965 bout.

Ebony Collection/The Johnson Archives

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