Historians breathe a sigh of relief at the sale of the Ebony and Jet photo archives

COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW – 01/08/2019

Brenna Wynn Greer

ON JULY 17, THE VAST PHOTO archives of Ebony and Jet magazines went up for auction, in an effort by the Johnson Publishing Company, which had recently declared bankruptcy, to settle its debts. A week later, the archive was sold to a consortium of four philanthropic foundations—the J. Paul Getty Trust, the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation—for just under $30 million. The haul included some of the most important visual documentation of the twentieth century Black experience. Likely the best-known photographs are those taken for Jet by David Jackson of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old Chicago boy who was lynched by two white men in Mississippi; many African Americans credit those images for inspiring their activist awakening. Also in the archive is Moneta Sleet Jr.’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Coretta Scott King at the funeral of her slain husband, Martin Luther King Jr.; veiled and dressed in black, the stoic widow comforts her forlorn daughter Bernice, who has taken refuge in her lap. There are pictures of eminent stars, and of unknown families, amassing a collection that conveys Black humanity and loss.

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