Ebony magazine covers on display among other Ebony-branded items at a magazine event in Beverly Hills in February 2005. A group of four foundations led by the J. Paul Getty Trust has bought the iconic Ebony and Jet photo archive.
Photo: Frederick M. Brown (Getty)

Seven decades’ worth of historic Ebony magazine photos documenting black life, both the everyday and the extraordinary, sold for $30 million at auction to a group of philanthropic organizations led by the J. Paul Getty Trust.

The photo collection was put up for sale to settle the debts of the magazine’s founding publisher, Johnson Publishing, after the company, started by the late John H. Johnson, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection.

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As the Chicago Tribune reports, the purchase was OK’d by a bankruptcy judge late Thursday.

The purchasers, who also include the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, say they intend to make the photos available to the public by sharing them with various libraries and cultural institutions.

Among those organizations that are to benefit are the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and the Getty Research Institute, which operates a museum in Los Angeles.

“There is no greater repository of the history of the modern African-American experience than this archive,” James Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, said, according to the Tribune. “Saving it and making it available to the public is a great honor and a grave responsibility.”

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It was that sense of responsibility that led to the unusual teaming up of the four foundations that banded together to buy the iconic collection, a collection that has been little seen outside the pages of Ebony and its sister publication, Jet, according to the New York Times.

“The narrative that is held in that archive is central to the narrative of America in the second half of the 20th century,” Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, told the Times. “The concern was that it should be brought into the public domain.”

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As the Times explains, the conversation among the foundations went a little something like this:

[Walker ...] said he was at the Prado Museum in Madrid last Tuesday when he read a news article about the impending auction on his phone. Elizabeth Alexander, the president of the Mellon Foundation, emailed Mr. Walker, suggesting — with a great deal of urgency — that they had to do something.

[...]

Mr. Walker and Ms. Alexander talked to leaders of two more institutions and brought them on board. Each foundation promised between $5 million and $12.5 million.

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The idea that the visual history that is the Ebony photo archives will be preserved and available to the public has historians breathing a sigh of relief.

“It is impossible to overstate the importance of the accessibility of Ebony and Jet archive for not only historians and researchers, for the general public,” Sarah Lewis, a historian at Harvard, told the Times. “Understanding American culture means understanding African-American culture. This collection, as an archive, offers an invaluable oculus onto black life.”