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CBS News Gets Rare Inside Look At Ebony, Jet Photo Archive

CHICAGO (CBS/CNN) -- More than 4 million photo prints and negatives from Ebony and Jet magazines now have a new home.

The iconic photo archive chronicles seven decades of African-American history. The Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation are buying the archive for $30 million as part of an auction to pay off secured creditors of Johnson Publishing Company.

Frank Robinson
Frank Robinson takes a few swings during batting practice in this undated photo. He was the first African American to manage a team in the major league. (Credit: Ebony/CNN)


"We felt it was imperative to preserve these images, to give them the exposure they deserve and make them readily available to the public," said the Ford Foundation's president, Darren Walker. A judge in Chicago tentatively approved the deal Thursday.

The foundations plan to donate the archive — considered one of the most significant collections of photographs cataloging African American life — to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Getty Research Institute and other institutions.

James Baldwin
Author James Baldwin, photographed while leaving his home. (Credit: Ebony/CNN)

CBS News' Adriana Diaz got access inside the photo archive this week to see history up close. Some of the photos are disturbing, others joyous.

One Pulitzer Prize-winning photo shows Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s wife and daughter at his funeral. Also shown are Muhammad Ali stinging like a bee in the ring, and a crooning Godfather of Soul James Brown.

The images humanized celebrities and celebrated regular people.

"The core of this collection is our history. It's the essence of the black story in America," said Perri Irmer, president of the DuSable Museum of African-American History in Washington Park.

Irmer said she grew up reading Ebony Magazine.

"You'd be hard-pressed to walk into a black home back in the day and not see the current issue of Ebony or Jet Magazine," she said. "We knew we were getting the truth. We knew we weren't getting somebody else's version of us."

But decreasing subscriptions and rising debt forced Chicago-based Johnson Publishing to sell the magazines and put its prized photo archives up for auction.
Archivist Vickie Wilson gave CBS News rare access to the files. Diaz had to put on gloves to handle them so as to prevent their being damaged by fingerprints.
They show everything from the Freedom Riders preparing to board a bus for civil rights marches to Ray Charles playing dominoes.

Some photos were a catalyst for change. When Jet published the disturbing open-casket image of 14-year-old Emmett Till – the Chicago boy who was beaten and lynched in Money, Mississippi in 1955 – it sparked the Civil Rights Movement.

Rosa Parks said she was thinking of Till when she refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

Those are images Wilson wants shared with future generations. She said it is important to maintain the record "just to let them know; show we can see how far we have come."

She said there is "a lot of hope" contained in the photos.

Della Reese
Blues singer Della Reese is eased into her snug-fitting gown by her dresser during a 1957 engagement at Robert's Show Lounge in Chicago, Illinois. (Credit: Ebony/CNN)

Johnson Publishing filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in April. The former magazine publisher sold its Ebony and Jet magazines three years ago.

The foundations that purchased the archive plan to transfer it to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Getty Research Institute pending final disposition.

"Ebony and Jet magazine helped shape our nation's history, allowing Americans of all colors to see the full panorama of the African American experience," said Lonnie Bunch, the Smithsonian Institution's leader and founding director of the African American history museum.

Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix is photographed in London, England. (Credit: Ebony/CNN)

"Together, our organizations will ensure these images, stories and the history of these publications are well-preserved and available to the public and future generations."

(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. CBS News and CNN contributed to this report.)

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