Entertainer Eartha Kitt in an undated photo (Courtesy of Johnson Publishing Company Archive)
Entertainer Eartha Kitt in an undated photo (Courtesy of Johnson Publishing Company Archive)

The acclaimed Johnson Publishing Company (JPC) that produced the iconic Ebony and Jet magazines documenting decades of Black life in America has a new home.

The Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Mellon Foundation, announced on July 28 the official transfer of ownership of the archive to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and the Getty Research Institute, a program of the Getty Trust. 

The photographic archives of JPC include more than three million photo negatives and slides, 983,000 photographs, 166,000 contact sheets, and 9,000 audio and visual recordings, representing one of the most comprehensive collections documenting Black culture in the 20th century.

While the collection will be housed primarily at NMAAHC, a portion of the JPC archive pertinent to the history and culture of Chicago —  where the company was headquartered — will remain in Chicago permanently for ongoing conservation and select exhibitions and programming. 

“The consortium is pleased to assure that this historic treasure is available to be viewed and studied in perpetuity,” Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust said. 

“Both Getty and the Smithsonian have worked diligently for the past three years to safely house the Johnson Publishing archive, begin the digital archiving process and to plan for the archive’s future, so that these vital histories can be freely shared with everyone.”

The Getty Trust has committed $30 million in support for the archive’s processing and digitization— an “essential step in the critical work of making this preeminent collection available and searchable to scholars, researchers, journalists, and the general public.”  

Considered staples in Black homes across the nation, Ebony and Jet were the first publications to fill the gap in the lack of Black representation in popular culture and media. 

From World War II through the Civil Rights movement and the cultural boom of the 1980s and 1990s, the archive reveals myriad facets of the Black experience, foundation leaders said. 

It allows viewers to consider American life of the last century through the eyes of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, Shirley Chisholm, and scores of Black activists, artists, athletes and everyday people. 

The archive also reveals the processes and editorial practices of the publishing company, founded in 1942 by John H. Johnson. 

“For decades, Ebony and Jet documented stories of Black celebrity, fashion, and the Civil Rights Movement and provided an opportunity for African Americans to see an authentic public representation of themselves while also offering the world a fuller view of the African American experience,” Kevin Young, the Andrew W. Mellon Director of NMAAHC said.

“Our museum is proud that this significant and iconic collection of African American images will be housed in our museum and preserved for generations to study, observe and enjoy.”

Sarafina Wright is a staff writer at the Washington Informer where she covers business, community events, education, health and politics. She also serves as the editor-in-chief of the WI Bridge, the Informer’s...

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