Ownership and Access: The Ebony and Jet Magazines Archive

Lerone Bennett, Former Senior Editor of Ebony Magazine (US National Archives)

In early July, the imminent auction of the Ebony/Jet archives made the news. Priceless collections of photographs and other documents of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Black life were to be sold to satisfy creditors in the Johnson Publishing Company bankruptcy case. Bankruptcy marked a sad end to the one-time publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines, which were founded by John H. Johnson in the postwar era and became iconic pieces of Black media. The two magazines were the second and third magazine ventures for Johnson, who launched Negro Digest (later Black World) in 1942, financed by a $500 loan his mother supported by leveraging her furniture as collateral.1 Although the Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Company folded in April 2019 after a ten-year decline, its two flagship publications continue, though Jet Magazine is exclusively online.

The sale of these archives raised alarms among historians, archivists, and the Black community as a whole. The Johnson Publishing Company had, for nearly seventy years, been an essential part of bolstering Black culture, not to mention the careers of more than a few now-prominent Black media figures like Greg Gumbel. The archives were valued at $30 million and were at a very real risk of being sold off to scattered archives, potentially in private collections where they could no longer be accessed. There are few individuals or organizations who could conceivably come up with a large sum and who would be motivated to keep such a valuable collection together.

This was also about more than a single archive. As Ashley Farmer has written, archives are traditionally not Black-friendly places. Citing John Hope Franklin’s discussion of his experiences as a young Black scholar, she observes that “Black people were both literally and metaphorically shut out of the historical profession.”2 The disappearance of this critical collection of Black history and culture into private hands, or its scattering across far-flung repositories, would make researching Black history by Black scholars harder. It would also be the latest erasure of Black-centered archives, an erasure that digital initiatives like The Colored Conventions Project, The Black Abolitionist Archive, the Henry McNeal Turner Project, and The HistoryMakers have worked to combat.

And then, there is the matter of what Johnson himself symbolized. He was the grandson of enslaved people who had had his educational opportunities limited while growing up in Arkansas. Jim Crow laws during the interwar period included separate street cars, anti-miscegenation laws, and a law passed in 1921 that prohibited the co-habitation of races.3 Instances of anti-Black violence included not only lynching, but mass violence such as the Elaine Race Riot of 1919 that left between 100–237 Black people dead in Phillips County, Arkansas. The Equal Justice Initiative would eventually classify it as a mass lynching incident in 2015. Redlining in Arkansas limited Black property ownership, as well as creating segregated neighborhoods. There were no schools for Black students behind the eighth grade in Johnson’s childhood district, or in the county, so Johnson repeated the grade in order to gain an extra year of school.

When he was a teenager, Johnson moved north with his family to Chicago. After Johnson and his mother visited the 1933–34 Chicago World’s Fair, the Johnson family joined numerous other southern Black families that were frustrated by segregation, poverty, and racial violence, and believed that they would have better opportunities in the North. The Johnsons were part of what some historians have described as the first wave of the Great Migration, a mass migration of approximately 1.6 million Black people primarily from the rural South to northern and midwestern cities between 1916 and 1940.

Yet, in the North, these families found de facto segregation, racial violence, and job discrimination that still limited opportunities. African Americans doubled their employment in steel, automobile, shipbuilding, and meatpacking industries, particularly after unionization of these industries.4 Yet, many found themselves in stiff competition with European immigrants for jobs and housing. Johnson later referred to his own life story as Succeeding Against the Odds. And succeed he did, going on to graduate from the University of Chicago. The inspiration to go into publishing came from the job he held at Supreme Life Insurance Company during his college years, where one of his duties entailed collecting news clippings for his boss.5

As his media empire grew, Johnson received numerous commendations for his work. He was awarded the Spingarn Medal, the Most Outstanding Black Publisher in History Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and over thirty honorary doctoral degrees. He was also made a Special Ambassador to multiple African countries by Presidents Johnson, Kennedy, and Nixon, during the peak years of the Civil Rights Era, along with travels to Russia and Poland.6 As a figure that was immersed in the Black community, as well as American and global politics, his life and publishing ventures served as a duality: a symbol of overcoming oppression whose life work entailed producing what is arguably one of the most extensive documentations of contemporary Black contributions to politics, art, culture, industry, and science. The scattering or private sale of such an archive would amount to a double-loss.

Thankfully, this story has a happy ending. The Getty and Ford Foundations created a last-minute initiative that crowdsourced the $30 million to buy the collection. The majority of the collection will go to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. While some are disappointed that the collection will no longer be solely Black-owned, the archives will remain accessible. These events are a powerful reminder of the importance of archives, access, and ownership of collections.

  1.  “Celebrating the Life and Legacy of John H. Johnson, 1918-2004,” Ebony (Oct. 2005).
  2.  Ashley D. Farmer, “Archiving While Black,” Black Perspectives (18 June 2018); and John Hope Franklin, “The Dilemma of the American Negro Scholar,” in John Hope Franklin, Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938-1988 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989): 303-4.
  3.  John William Graves, “Jim Crow in Arkansas: A Reconsideration of Urban Race Relations in the Post-Reconstruction South.” Journal of Southern History 55 (August 1989): 421–448; and Carol S. Brunch, “Nonmarital Cohabitation in Common Law Countries: A Study in Judicial-Legislative Interaction,” The American Journal of Comparative Law, 29:2 (Spring 1981): 217–245.
  4.  James Gilbert Cassedy, “African Americans and the American Labor Movement,” Prologue, Vol. 29, (Summer 1997).
  5.  “John H. Johnson,” Biography, The HistoryMakers.
  6.  Ibid.
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Jessica Parr

Jessica Parr teaches at Simmons College in Boston and is an Affiliate Assistant Professor of Women Studies at the University of New Hampshire, Durham. She's primarily interested in African American print culture, and religious and political thought. Her first book, Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism, and the Making of a Religious Icon, was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2015. Follow her on Twitter @ProvAtlantic.