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New Owners Say ‘Ebony’, ‘Jet’ Photo Archive Will Be Widely Accessible

The J. Paul Getty Trust and a group of foundations are the new owners of more than a million iconic photos of African American life and celebrities.

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johnson publishing logo

The original Johnson Publishing Company logo. On Wednesday, the company’s massive archive of “Ebony” and “Jet” magazine photos were sold to the J. Paul Getty Trust and a group of foundations.

Andrew Gill

Updated at 12:48 p.m.

A massive archive of photos from Ebony and Jet magazines has been sold to a consortium of foundations for $30 million after an auction that began last week.

The winning bid came from a group led by the J. Paul Getty Trust and including the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The consortium said it plans to donate the archive to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., the Getty Research Institute and other cultural institutions.

Chicago-based Johnson Publishing, owner of Ebony and Jet, put the archive up for auction after filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in April.

“This archive is a national treasure and one of tremendous importance to the telling of black history in America,” Ford Foundation President Darren Walker said in a prepared statement. “We felt it was imperative to preserve these images, to give them the exposure they deserve and make them readily available to the public.”

Johnson Publishing Chairman Linda Johnson Rice said she’s “elated about the decision.” She added that “now the archive will be open to the public. It will be for research, it will have access all over the world.” The archive is currently closed to the public.

John Palfrey, the MacArthur Foundation’s incoming president, said MacArthur and Johnson Publishing “share a common home town in Chicago and a commitment to preserving and sharing the rich breadth and complete history of the African American narrative.”

The archive contains more than a million images showing 70 years of African American life. It includes photos of countless black icons including Martin Luther King, Jr., Aretha Franklin, Muhammad Ali, James Brown, Malcolm X and Leontyne Price.

There also are striking images of tragic events in American history. One of the better known photos is of 14-year-old Emmett Till, the Chicago boy who was brutally murdered by two white men in Mississippi in 1955. Till’s mother wanted the gruesome photo of his beaten, disfigured face to be published by Ebony so the world could see what had been done to her child.

Miriam Stein, the bankruptcy court-appointed trustee for Johnson Publishing, said the company had reached out to foundations, individuals and museums to find a new owner for the archive. Among the members of the group that made the winning bid, the Los Angeles-based Getty Trust showed early interest, Stein said, and its archivists met with Johnson Publishing representatives.

“It’s been amazing — the love of the city for this collection, the love of people nationally for this collection, and there’s really been a human interest in what happens,” she said.

The Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation provides funding to WBEZ.

Carrie Shepherd is a news reporter for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @cshepherd.

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