Ebony magazine’s legendary photo archive is up for auction

In November 1953, dancers with the Hollywood Negro Ballet pose for a publicity photograph for Ebony magazine.
In November 1953, dancers with the Hollywood Negro Ballet pose for a publicity photograph for Ebony magazine.
(The Huntington)

The photo archives of Ebony magazine, which span decades and contain some of the country’s most iconic images of African American history, are scheduled to be sold at auction on Monday, the Chicago Tribune reports.

The archive of millions of photographs and negatives were originally set to be auctioned off Wednesday, but there wasn’t a clear winning bid. The auction will resume next week at a Chicago law office.

The auction is the result of a bankruptcy filing by Johnson Publishing Co., the Chicago-based former owner of Ebony and Jet, two of the best-known publications aimed at African American audiences. The company sold the two magazines in 2016, but retained Ebony’s photo archive.

Since then, the company has been trying to repay its creditors. The photo archive it’s putting up for auction has been valued at about $47 million, according to CNN.

The archive contains 70 years of photographic images, including ones of Muhammad Ali, Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole and James Brown.

Ebony magazine was founded by businessman John H. Johnson in 1945 in Chicago, with Jet following six years later. The magazines quickly became the most recognizable national publications for African American readers, and were well known for their photography.

In 2016, Johnson Publishing sold the two magazines to Austin, Texas, private equity company Clear View Group. Last month, USA today reported that all seven members of Ebony’s digital staff said they had been fired, and had yet to receive all the money they were owed from the magazine.


Washington University in St. Louis professor Jeffrey Q. McCune, Jr., whose research interests include critical race theory, told CNN that he was concerned about the fate of Ebony’s photo archives.

“I really fear that what we will have is that some collector will take it into their private collection and cut it off from public access,” McCune said. “If these images are lost, if these images are privatized, if these images are somehow destroyed, I think that that type [of loss] is unaffordable. There is power in preservation and, particularly for black life in this country, visual representation is important.”

University of Delaware Africana studies and history professor Tiffany M. Gill also expressed trepidation about the archive’s fate, telling the New York Times, “It keeps me up at night, thinking about the future of this archive. You can’t really tell the story of black life in the 20th century without these images from the Johnson archive. So it’s important that whatever happens in this auction, that these images are preserved and made available to scholars, art lovers and everyday folks.”

The New York Times reports that several museums have indicated they’re interested in purchasing the archive.