Rare Black Images, Finally Up for Grabs

Eartha Kitt (left); Dizzy Gillespie (Ebony Collection)
Eartha Kitt (left); Dizzy Gillespie (Ebony Collection)

(The Root) — You've heard the expression "a picture is worth a thousand words." Photos have the ability to tell complex stories, convey important information and elicit emotional responses from viewers who may know nothing of the subject matter. One frame can change the world. Think of the iconic photographs that have come to symbolize a movement, a way of being or a slice of life.


Joe Rosenthal's "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima"; Moneta Sleet Jr.'s "Deep Sorrow," featuring Coretta Scott King at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr.; James Van Der Zee's photo of black nationalist and pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey; Elizabeth "Tex" Williams' war photographs; Art Kane's "A Great Day in Harlem"; Gordon Parks' "American Gothic"; Carrie Mae Weems' "Kitchen Table Series"; and Jean Moutoussamy-Ashe's photo book, Daddy and Me, featuring images of her late husband, tennis legend and civil rights activist Arthur Ashe, with their daughter, Camera. 

Photos offer us a peek into unknown worlds and, in some cases, worlds we know all too well. Chronicling our lives and society, they capture history and the profound experiences of a complex world. The Johnson Publishing Co.'s Ebony Collection, now available to the public for the first time, does just that. This historic photo archive offers 2,000 photos taken over the last 70 years, documenting the rich and layered black experience in the United States.


Johnson Chairman Linda Johnson Rice curated the collection, poring over a million photographs to determine which photos would be offered to the public. Johnson Rice says she started sorting by themes in order to get through the massive task.  

"I started by selecting personalities that had great significance across a diverse range of disciplines, including sports, the arts, culture and history. Once the 'who' and the 'what' were determined, I literally sifted through each file we had on those subjects, photo by photo," Johnson Rice told The Root. "Each photo had to exhibit great photography, each had to strike me in a certain way and tell a story, not only the obvious, but the not so obvious — they had to be captivating."

The Ebony Collection showcases never-before-seen photos of Sammy Davis Jr. and Martin Luther King Jr., in addition to images of Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and Tina Turner. The collection also presents photos of historic moments in the black experience, like the March on Washington and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. More than 30 photographers are featured in the collection, including photographs taken by Moneta Sleet Jr., who won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for "Deep Sorrow," becoming the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize, and for a black publication, Ebony magazine.

Johnson Rice's motivation for the collection was to give readers an opportunity to own a piece of history.  She says, "We have been strategically looking for opportunities that naturally extend our lifestyle brand beyond the pages of the magazines. So offering the public an opportunity to own a part of this historic photo archive, by way of prints they can decorate their homes with, seemed like a natural progression."


The Ebony Collection is in good company, with the recent release of the Steve Biko South Africa Archive. Published by Google and curated by the Steve Biko Foundation, the online archive features never-before-published photos and documents of the anti-apartheid activist, who died in police custody 35 years ago. The Gordon Parks Foundation has produced its first major publication this year, to commemorate Parks' 100th birthday. The foundation worked with famed book publisher Gerhard Steidl to produce a comprehensive five-volume book series that spans Parks' photographic career, titled Gordon Parks: Collected Works. There are more than 1,200 photographs of his work, including fashion photographs and portraits. More than a third of the images included in the collection have never been published before.

Black photo archives like the Ebony Collection, the Steve Biko South Africa Archive and collections like Parks' help to document the black experience, giving folks an opportunity to share in black history, one frame at a time. That alone is worth at least a thousand words.


Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. She is also editor-in-chief of the Burton Wire, a blog dedicated to world news related to the African Diaspora and global culture. Follow her on Twitter.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.

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