A company controlled by financier Mellody Hobson and her husband, filmmaker George Lucas, is seeking to take control of an extensive archive of photos owned by Johnson Publishing, the firm behind Ebony and JET magazines, which filed for bankruptcy April 10.
“The Archive contains thousands of images of notable African-American figures, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Stevie Wonder,” reads a filing from the company, Capital Holdings V, LLC, entered into federal bankruptcy court last week. It says the archive is “an iconic collection of images documenting 70 years of the African-American experience.”
“We are dedicated to preserving and celebrating stories and storytellers around the world,” said an emailed statement from Capital Holdings. “The Johnson Publishing archives are an essential part of American history and have been critical in telling the extraordinary stories of African American culture for decades. We want to be sure the archives are protected for generations to come.”
Johnson Publishing said its petition for bankruptcy liquidation comes after the company was “caught in a tidal wave of marketplace changes and business issues which, despite exhaustive efforts, could not be overcome.”
John H. Johnson founded the company in 1942 when he launched Negro Digest with a $500 loan from his mother. The magazine summarized newspaper articles about black life. Key to the company’s growth was Ebony magazine, founded in 1945 and patterned after Life magazine, then one of the nation’s leading magazines. The average monthly circulation of Ebony was around 2 million for a time in the 1990s, making it the largest magazine catering to black Americans.
After reporting revenues in the hundreds of millions in the 1990s, the company’s fortunes began to decline after Johnson died in 2005 and magazines in general began to struggle as advertisers moved to alternative media. With Johnson’s daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, in charge, the company tried to halt its decline with the sale of its assets, including its historic headquarters on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue.
In the filing, Capital Holdings said it is a creditor of Johnson and that the uninsured photo archive has been precariously sitting in a leased storage facility on Johnson’s leased premises since the company filed bankruptcy.
“Under these circumstances, the risk of inadvertent disaster cannot be overstated,” the filing reads. “Such risk is especially prevalent for fragile photographs and other media.”
The Capital Holdings filing said Johnson has tried unsuccessfully to sell the archive for years. A hearing on Capital Holdings’ motion is slated for Tuesday.