The World-Class Photography of Ebony and Jet Is Priceless History. It's Still Up For Sale.Breaking News
tags: African American history, archives, popular culture, Jet, Ebony
Allison Miller is editor of Perspectives. She tweets @Cliopticon.
Chicago publishing magnate John H. Johnson wrote in his autobiography, “I wasn’t trying to make history—I was trying to make money.” But as a Black entrepreneur who launched two of the 20th century’s most important magazines, Ebony and Jet, he did both. Today, that twin legacy—history and money—is at the center of the fate of the remaining assets of his empire: the Johnson Publishing Company, which filed for Chapter VII bankruptcy this past April. The conversation is coming to a head as the pearl of its collection, its photography archive, appraised at $46 million in 2015, readies to go up for auction later this month. The winning bidder will acquire some 4.5 million images of African American life, including nearly 2,800 “crown jewels,” as an asset listing calls them: from Ali to Wonder, from Montgomery, Alabama, to Washington, DC. And far beyond.
News coverage of the bankruptcy has focused on the details of the company’s demise and the impending auction, scheduled for July 17. But the archive’s unquestionable historical value means there’s more than money at stake in the process of finding a new home for it.
It's “relatively unique” to even see an archive listed as an asset in a corporate bankruptcy filing, says attorney Rick Meller of the Chicago law firm Fox Swibel, which represents the trustee in this case. (Other Johnson Publishing assets that must be sold separately include a collection of couture dresses that were part of the company’s long-running Fashion Fair, an annual event launched by Eunice Johnson, Johnson’s wife and a tycoon in her own right, as well as the groundbreaking Fashion Fair cosmetics brand.) Many publishers don’t consider their photo archives worth the upkeep. But the Johnson Publishing Company did. It’s because of the efforts of an African American family running a business over generations that this massive visual documentation of American history has survived.
At the same time, the archive has been extraordinarily difficult for researchers to access over the years. A corporation simply isn’t obliged to throw open its doors to the public, even if it’s well aware of the historical nature of its holdings. Now, however, if it’s bought by a philanthropist and donated to a public museum or library, there’s a possibility that everyone could gain access to a huge slice of American history.
That makes the intentions and values of a prospective buyer paramount. “In the scheme of this big world,” as Kurt Cherry, a businessman and native Chicagoan who in the early 2000s owned four African American newspapers, including the storied Chicago Defender, puts it, “what do you want to do with it, and why are you buying it, and are African Americans in the conversation about buying it?”
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