Ownership and Access: The Ebony and Jet Magazines ArchiveBreaking News
tags: Black History, archives, Ebony Magazine, Jet Magazine
Jessica Parr, intellectual and cultural historian and professor of history.
In early July, the imminent auction of the Ebony/Jet archives made the news. Priceless collections of photographsand 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 Ebonyand 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.
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