This article first appeared on Perspectives Daily, a publication of the American Historical Association.
Chicago publishing magnate John H. Johnson wrote in his autobiography, “I wasn’t trying to make history—I was trying to make money.” But as a Black entrepreneur who launched two of the 20th century’s most important magazines, Ebony and Jet, he did both. Today, that twin legacy—history and money—is at the center of the fate of the remaining assets of his empire: the Johnson Publishing Company. The conversation is coming to a head as the pearl of its collection, its photography archive, appraised at $46 million in 2015, readies to go up for auction later this month. The winning bidder will acquire some 4.5 million images of African American life, including nearly 2,800 “crown jewels,” as an asset listing calls them: from Ali to Wonder, from Montgomery, Alabama, to Washington, DC. And far beyond.
News coverage of the bankruptcy has focused on the details of the company’s demise and the impending auction, scheduled for July 17. But the archive’s unquestionable historical value means there’s more than money at stake in the process of finding a new home for it.
It’s “relatively unique” to even see an archive listed as an asset in a corporate bankruptcy filing, says attorney Rick Meller of the Chicago law firm Fox Swibel, which represents the trustee in this case. (Other Johnson Publishing assets that must be sold separately include a collection of couture dresses that were part of the company’s long-running Fashion Fair, an annual event launched by Eunice Johnson, Johnson’s wife and a tycoon in her own right, as well as the groundbreaking Fashion Fair cosmetics brand.) Many publishers don’t consider their photo archives worth the upkeep. But the Johnson Publishing Company did. It’s because of the efforts of an African American family running a business over generations that this massive visual documentation of American history has survived.
At the same time, the archive has been extraordinarily difficult for researchers to access over the years. A corporation simply isn’t obliged to throw open its doors to the public, even if it’s well aware of the historical nature of its holdings. Now, however, if it’s bought by a philanthropist and donated to a public museum or library, there’s a possibility that everyone could gain access to a huge slice of American history.
That makes the intentions and values of a prospective buyer paramount. “In the scheme of this big world,” as Kurt Cherry, a businessman and native Chicagoan who in the early 2000s owned four African American newspapers, including the storied Chicago Defender, puts it, “what do you want to do with it, and why are you buying it, and are African Americans in the conversation about buying it?”
It’s impossible to overstate the significance of the Johnson Publishing Company, founded in Chicago in 1942. John and Eunice Johnson began with Negro Digest, a Readers Digest for an African American audience, which quickly reached thousands of households. Ebony, the company’s flagship monthly, launched in 1945, followed by the weekly Jet in ’51. Soon Johnson Publishing emerged as a beacon of African American enterprise, in no small part because Johnson himself poached some of the top journalistic, editorial, and design talent from around the country. One catch was the Atlanta Daily World’s Lerone Bennett Jr., who eventually became Ebony’s influential executive editor and a historian whose work resonated deeply with Americans who didn’t see themselves in the history taught in schools. Celebrities—the likes of Dorothy Dandridge, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin—were featured in the magazines as their careers were taking off: they were superstars in African American living rooms but nearly unknown to the readership of photo magazines targeting a mainstream white readership, like LIFE.
Covers in the early years steered risqué — all the better to increase sales and land major advertisers — but the pages inside also documented the Black freedom movement as well as everyday life. In each of his publications, Johnson wanted to emphasize positive stories (distinguishing him from the crusading publishers of African American newspapers), so readers encountered articles about people who ran businesses, raised families, wrote poems and plays, ministered to congregations and to the sick, created artworks, and—as history nudged the publications to a more activist stance, though one careful enough not to alienate advertisers—organized against white supremacy. Importantly, every page was saturated with photography, which ventured far beyond formally composed portraits. The staff photographers of Ebony and Jet captured people in conversation, in motion, and taking up space on their own terms — at work, at home, in joy, and in struggle.
John H. Johnson died in 2005, around the time when the magazine industry was being battered by the new realities of the digital age. Eunice followed in 2010. With Desirée Rogers, who served as CEO from 2010 to 2017, Johnson’s daughter Linda Johnson Rice took the company through several calculated steps to stay afloat. Rice and Rogers loaned the company a combined total of nearly $4.8 million between 2014 and mid-2015. But in 2015 the company put the photo archive up for sale; it also worked out a $12 million loan from Capital Holdings V, a private investment firm owned by Mellody Hobson and her husband, George Lucas, to use the funds against the hoped-for sale of the archive. The next year Johnson Publishing sold Ebony and Jet to a private equity firm. When the company filed for Chapter VII bankruptcy this past April, the court put a trustee in charge of its assets. The law requires that those assets be sold for their maximum possible value — hence the pending auction.
“I’ve had anxiety about this for four years,” says Brenna W. Greer, an associate professor of history at Wellesley College who writes about race, business, and visual culture. Greer’s new book, Represented: The Black Imagemakers Who Reimagined African American Citizenship, makes the case that a key part of African Americans’ struggle for full citizenship after World War II centered on creating and managing commercial images of themselves. That made what the Johnson Publishing Company was doing crucial, she says.
Like many researchers and teachers who analyze 20th-century images of African Americans, Greer has encountered the paradox that the photography in Ebony and Jet, while of priceless historical significance, was created and preserved by a for-profit entity. In writing Represented, Greer found it difficult to even get her foot in the door, though her final book includes a number of images licensed from the Ebony Collection. “Johnson Publishing is notoriously closed off to researchers,” she says. “Even in terms of getting information about what’s there, it’s been hard to crack that inner sanctum.”
When the archive was first put up for sale back in 2015, Greer says, she harbored fantasies of writing to Oprah Winfrey to prevail on her to purchase it and donate it to a library or museum. That way it could shape the stories historians and educators like her tell. “One of the ways I kept pitching myself to Johnson Publishing to gain access, which kept falling into the void, was that the company was undermining its own cultural significance, because trained experts couldn’t come and help them establish or consider or promote their historical significance.”
While Greer would like to see the archive end up with a nonprofit entity with expertise in preservation, cataloging, curation, and digitization, she knows an image-licensing corporation or an entertainment network may very well acquire it instead. The consequences of such a sale could have significant ramifications. The archive contains many more images than were ever published; if they came to light, they could add to the stories already narrated on the page, or perhaps reveal ones that never made the final cut. But in other hands, there’s no guarantee the public would be able to gain access to the full stories of the people in the magazines who weren’t major celebrities. That’s because were the images to be digitized and licensed by another for-profit company, it would likely focus on marquee names.
Cost realities are also at play. Academic books are typically published by nonprofit university presses, and a medium-size print run might be 1,500 copies. On the other hand, licensing a single image from a photo-licensing company can run to more than $500. That’s a lot of money in the academic world, and it might price researchers out of using more of the archive’s image library in future publications. That’s a detriment to scholarship overall. As Rhae Lynn Barnes, an assistant professor of American cultural history at Princeton University, points out, when entities that can afford high fees produce history-related work, it’s more likely to be entertainment, even if it’s a documentary. Those works have a different mission, she says, than one coming from, say, a graduate student piecing together a new interpretation in an archive or museum.
But perhaps the most alarming question around licensing revolves around the possibility of charging a usage fee for sensitive items in the collection. Historians who have knowledge of what Ebony and Jet published will point, immediately, to David Jackson’s photographs of Emmett Till lying in repose at his funeral, which first ran in the Sept. 15, 1955, issue of Jet. Till was a 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was tortured and murdered while visiting relatives in Mississippi, for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
The publication of Jackson’s photographs of Till’s carefully dressed but badly decomposed body echoed like a thunderclap among African Americans, particularly young people who became activists in the 1960s — the “Emmett Till generation,” they would call themselves.
Barnes recalls how her undergraduate adviser was still visibly affected by the Till photographs when he mentioned them in a talk he gave over 50 years later. “[E]ven as a very senior scholar, he was teary-eyed when he remembered seeing those images,” Barnes says. “You cannot deny this moment as salient of racial consciousness for so many people.”
It’s true that money was always involved with the publication. As editor and publisher of Jet, Johnson himself was intimately involved in the decision to run Jackson’s photos of Till on two pages near the beginning of the issue. The company may very well have profited from it; the issue sold out its run, and Jackson’s images ran in other issues of Jet that fall, too. But the photographs, and the Jet editors’ risk, also made history. Jackson’s photographs of Till, the Loyola University Chicago historian Elliott Gorn points out, were famous to African Americans for a generation but all but unseen by white people until the Eyes on the Prize documentary series of 1987. This was a narrative, a history, created by African Americans for one another.
Most importantly, as Ruth Feldstein, a historian at Rutgers University Newark, has shown, Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, explicitly gave permission for Jet to circulate the horrific images: she said she wanted “the world to see” the kind of atrocity white supremacy enabled. Indeed, the photographs were themselves a collaboration between journalists and Till Mobley. David Jackson and the journalist Simeon Booker met the grieving mother at the train station to meet her son’s remains, then accompanied her to the funeral home, where they stood with her when the casket was opened.
Today, a listing of the archive’s contents reveals that it contains not just the handful of images from the funeral that most people have seen, and that most historians know about. There are, in fact, as many as 80 images, shot by Jackson, Edward Bailey, and Isaac Sutton. The possibility that the most sensitive images among them could be licensed for profit today is cause for concern.
Barnes, who writes about the circulation of images of blackface minstrelsy, draws parallels to the past in the idea that a person or company could make money from images of a lynching today. For many years, she explains, there was a huge underground market for lynching memorabilia, from picture postcards to victims’ body parts. “It would be sacrilegious to monetize them,” says Barnes of the Till photographs. “I don’t think we should be monetizing any photos having to do with lynching.”
Another scholar who’s given deep consideration to the fate of the archive is University of Chicago historian Adam Green. He is the author of the influential Selling the Race: Culture, Community, and Black Chicago, 1940-1955 (2007), which analyzes how Ebony and Jet helped catalyze Black political, social, and cultural consciousness, including the role the Emmett Till photographs played in bringing African Americans together.
“I am very saddened and deeply disturbed that the likely outcome will be the transfer of these historical holdings [to a for-profit entity],” Green says, before bringing up the elephant in the room. “[W]e can’t address this story,” he says, “without addressing the fact that the structural inequality of wealth in this country will play a role in the eventual outcome.”
As a nation, he points out, the US is grappling with a radically inequitable distribution of wealth along racial lines; a recent Center for American Progress report found that the median net worth of non-retired African Americans in 2016 was $13,460, just 9.5% of the median net worth of non-retired whites — a clear legacy of systemic racism. Because philanthropists, who are the lifeblood of public institutions like museums, need to be connected to networks of wealth that historically have excluded people of color, white people have an outsize influence on decisions influencing public knowledge, he says. The consequences of these structural forces have direct bearing on the fate of the Johnson Publishing Company photo archive.
Historians must do more to build bridges to the institutional and for-profit sectors, says Green, so that they can be part of conversations like those around this archive before they build to a perceived crisis. “I do not know of many conversations that have taken place, in the 10-plus years that Johnson Publishing has been concerned about its institutional security and assets, in which academics recognize not only the legal but also the legitimate business concerns of the private owners,” he says. “Simply defining something as a ‘public’ archive is not necessarily good for everyone’s interests.” At the height of its influence, he says, “the Johnson Publishing Company could address the vast majority of African American people who didn’t get to go to college, who wouldn’t get to read historians’ scholarship.”
Cherry, the former Defender owner, can speak to that. Just last week, the current management of the Defender announced that it would cease publishing its print edition after over a century. The pressing financial concerns of running a newspaper, Cherry says, made it impossible to prioritize thinking about its history even when he was around. It wasn’t that he didn’t know what he had when he took over back in 2003. He can still vividly recall seeing the Defender’s photo archive for the first time: “It was a rush. It was like, wow, what am I sitting on top of? I didn’t realize the implications of what I bought.” But reality forced the needs of the archive to the periphery. “It just wasn’t a priority — preserving this stuff and doing the right thing by it,” he says. “We’re just trying to put out a paper every day. We’re trying to survive.”
It’s certainly possible that the photographs that make up the Johnson Publishing photo archive could wind up controlled by an institution that has substantial input from African Americans and is committed to public access. Meller says that Hilco Streambank, the law firm in charge of organizing the auction, has been soliciting interest from museums and members of the African American philanthropic community. Earlier this spring, Capital Holdings V expressed a desire to preserve the images for posterity. The company could win the auction (or foreclose on the archive) and donate the images to, say, the nonprofit Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, which recently broke ground in Los Angeles, or another institution. (Requests for comment from Capital Holdings and Rice were not returned.)
In the end, it will boil down to the intentions and values of the buyer. The archive is more than a “trophy,” Cherry says. “You can buy a Picasso, hang it on your wall, it sits there. But if you buy it with a purpose, to use it meaningfully, that is quite different.”
The conversation circles back to that twin legacy of John H. Johnson’s empire: history and money. And what ends up winning out should concern everyone. As Barnes said: “This is not only Black history, this is American history and global American culture.” Ebony and Jet were at the center of it all.
Allison Miller is editor of Perspectives Daily. Follow her on Twitter at @Cliopticon.
WBEZ’s Alyssa Edes produced this interview for broadcast. Follow her on Twitter @alyssaedes.