“The archive reveals myriad facets of the Black experience and allows viewers to consider American life of the last century,” per the Smithsonian.

A vast photo archive of two iconic African American publications documenting 20th-century Black life has been transferred to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and to the Getty Research Institute.

Ebony and Jet, two publications that were instrumental in providing media representation for Black Americans from the 1940s to the mid-2010s, amassed what is considered the most comprehensive archive of its kind. The archive contains over 3 million photo negatives and slides, nearly 1 million photos, 9,000 audio and visual recordings, and more, per the Smithsonian.

(Photo: Ebony Magazine)

In 1942, amid Jim Crow, John H. and Eunice W. Johnson founded the Johnson Publishing Company (JPC) which published Ebony and Jet for seven decades. The company amplified Black voices and documented the Black experience through World War II, the Civil Rights Movement and the rapid cultural expansion that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, per the Smithsonian.

“The archive reveals myriad facets of the Black experience and 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 more, according to the museum’s announcement. The publications also shone a light on the perspectives and work of Black artists, poets, athletes, entertainers and students as well as everyday community members, according to the Smithsonian.

The collection, tited after the JPC, is being processed and digitized through the help of $30 million from the Getty Trust, wth a physical exhibition of the documents to be housed at the famed history museum in Washington D.C.

Kevin Young, the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, said the publications “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.” “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,” Young added.

The final print edition of JET magazine with a cover declaring it “An American Icon” was printed in 2014. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, underscored the importance of preserving the archive in a statement Thursday on behalf of the trust, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution.

“The consortium is pleased to assure that this historic treasure is available to be viewed and studied in perpetuity,” Cuno 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.” 

JPC was headquartered in Chicago and the city will retain a portion of the archive that pertains to local history and culture even after the full collection is transferred to Washington.

Leading the charge in ensuring the archive transfer will be conducted properly are 11 expert advisory staffers led by Dr. Carla Hayden, the 14th Librarian of Congress. A team of archivists in Chicago are currently cataloging and digitizing the vast collection for future generations to study. 

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