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Entertainment & Arts

A happy ending for Ebony? Iconic photo archive sold to foundations planning to donate it

Muhammad Ali
Boxing great Muhammad Ali is photographed in full swing against opponent Floyd Patterson in December 1965 fight.
(Herbert Nipson / Ebony Collection/ Johnson Publishing Company)

Ebony magazine’s legendary photo archive — which includes iconic images of Muhammad Ali, Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole and James Brown — has been sold for $30 million to a consortium of charitable foundations.

The Ford Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation on Thursday acquired the archive of more than 4 million prints and negatives from the Johnson Publishing Company, the publisher and former owner of Ebony and Jet magazines, as part of an auction that took place earlier this month.

The sale, part of JPC’s Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing, was approved by a bankruptcy court in Chicago on Thursday.

The foundations plan to share the archive with the public by donating them to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Getty Research Institute and other leading cultural institutions “for the public benefit to ensure the broadest access for the general public and use by scholars, researchers, journalists, and other interested parties,” according to a statement from the Ford Foundation that announced the acquisition following Johnson’s bankruptcy court hearing.

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The massive archive spans more than 70 years and offers remarkable insight into everyday life in Black America, including up close and personal photographs of artists, celebrities and leaders, the statement said. Historic images also capture moments of grief and horror such as Coretta Scott King at husband Martin Luther King’s funeral and the mutilated body of Emmett Till in his coffin following his slaying in the Jim Crow era.

Coretta Scott King in 1968.
Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Coretta Scott King consoling her daughter, Bernice, at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968.
(Moneta Sleet Jr. / Ebony Collection/ Johnson Publishing Company)

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

“There is no greater repository of the history of the modern African American experience than this archive. Saving it and making it available to the public is a great honor and a grave responsibility,” added James Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust.

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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.

Johnson Publishing Co., which sold off Ebony in 2016, originally retained its impressive photo archive but then put it up for auction this month to repay its creditors.


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