Heritage

Ebony's Photo Archive Is an Irreplaceable Record of Black History-and It Might Get Hidden Away

The collection is up for auction, and a private buyer could take it home for good.
IMAGE ISAAC SUTTON/JOHNSON PUBLISHING COMPANY
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Under the tutelage of legendary founder John H. Johnson, Ebony and Jet magazines were revolutionary. They published the image of Emmett Till's open casket that lit a fire under the civil rights movement, documented Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral, and showcased cultural icons ranging from Pearl Bailey to Whoopi Goldberg, to Ray Charles.

Sadly, the company Johnson founded has fallen into bankruptcy. In an effort to repay its debts, the Johnson Publishing Company is now auctioning off its photo archive—a one-of-a-kind collection of images documenting black history. And as of now, it's unclear if future generations will have access to the photos it contains.

According to the New York Times, plenty of libraries and academic organizations are in the running to purchase it; but if a private buyer takes the archive home, it's their personal decision whether to keep it to themselves or provide access to the photos. The archive was valued at $45 million in 2015, but the minimum bid is $12.5.

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Inside the Ebony Archive

Singer Diahann Carroll is photographed as she prepares to perform.
Photo by VANDELL COBB/JOHNSON PUBLISHING COMPANY.

Jimi Hendrix picks guitar with his teeth.
Photo by G. MARSHALL WILSON/JOHNSON PUBLISHING COMPANY.

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Adam Clayton Powell and Malcolm X attend the New York City school boycott rally in March 1964.
Photo by MARSHALL WILSON/JOHNSON PUBLISHING COMPANY.

Jazz singer Nat King Cole studies music before a performance.
Photo by ISAAC SUTTON/JOHNSON PUBLISHING COMPANY.

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Opera singer Leontyne Price reflects on notes after a performance.
Photo by MARSHALL WILSON/JOHNSON PUBLISHING COMPANY.

Roosevelt Zanders poses with the fleet of limousines he uses in his New York livery service, 1956.
Photo by BERTRAND MILES/JOHNSON PUBLISHING COMPANY.

Former Ebony senior editor Margena Christian told the Times what Johnson, who died in 2005, would have thought of the auction. "Mr. Johnson, as we called him, always said, ‘I am not for sale,'" Christian said.

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"And the real tragedy is that his building was for sale, his magazines were for sale, and now his archives are for sale. I can’t say on record what he would say about it, because it would be a lot of expletives. He would curse and curse and curse."

*This article originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com

*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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