HISTORY ON THE AUCTION BLOCK

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The bankruptcy sale of Johnson Publication’s priceless collection of Ebony and JET magazine photographs highlights the end of a media empire.

Ebony and JET
Millions of photos chronicling Black life in 20th-Century America as depicted in Ebony and JET magazines will go to the highest bidder.

COMPILED FROM STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS

CHICAGO – It has been a rough week for what used to be Black America’s leading media outlet.

First, the entire photo archive – estimated at more than four million prints and negatives – compiled by Ebony magazine and its sister publication, JET magazine, was scheduled to be sold at a private auction on Wednesday (after the Florida Courier’s press time) at the office of a Chicago law firm. 

In April, Johnson Publishing Company (JPC), the original corporate owner of Ebony and JET, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. JPC sold the magazines years ago, but held onto the photo archive. 

In 2015, the photo collection was appraised for $46 million, but an auction was never held. 

John H. Johnson

Protesting for pay 

Second, Ebony and JET magazine – now under new ownership after JPC sold them both – may be closing their doors for good. 

Former employees of the company took to Twitter last week using the hashtag #EbonyOwes to air their frustrations with the company, as it has fired all of its employees with little to no notice. 

According to USA Today, members of Ebony magazine’s digital team say they’ve been fired and haven’t received their final paychecks in the latest controversy to hit the struggling publication that has chronicled Black life in America for decades. 

No comment

Michael Gibson, co-chairman and founder of Austin, Texas-based Clear View Group, which now owns Ebony, declined to comment to USA TODAY on the digital team’s dismissal, citing a “policy of not commenting on any employment practices or issues.” 

The Chicago Tribune previously reported how Ebony was being pressed by the National Writers Union to pay more than $200,000 it alleged the magazine owed to freelance writers who contributed stories back in 2017. 

Both events signal an ignominious end of the Black-owned media empire built by Ebony and JET’s founder, the late John H. Johnson. 

The history 

Johnson, an Arkansas native, moved with his family to Chicago during Black America’s Great Migration from the South to northern cities.

He started his first magazine, the Negro Digest, in 1942 after his mother allowed him to use her furniture as collateral for a $500 loan. 

The Negro Digest was similar to the Reader’s Digest, but it reprinted positive articles by and about Black America. Within six months of its start, circulation had reached 50,000. 

Pictorial essays 

Johnson’s subsequent publication, Ebony, was started in 1945. Articles in Ebony were designed to look like those in Life or Look magazines, both of which were popular at the time. 

Ebony emphasized the achievements of successful African Americans and included photo essays about current events and articles about race relations. Initially focused on the Black rich and famous, Johnson expanded the reporting to include more serious topic issues such as racism and discrimination, politics, Black militancy, and so-called Black-on-Black crime, among many others.

Professional scholars such as Lerone Bennett, the noted author and social historian were recruited for the magazine’s staff. Ebony served as Bennett’s base for the publication of a steady stream of articles on African-American history, with some collected and published as books, including “Before the Mayflower-A History of Black America.” 

Everything in the magazine was focused on the Black consumer. Black models were used in Ebony’s advertisements, and the magazine made conscious efforts to portray positive aspects of African American life and culture – the critical factor that Johnson maintained was the key to Ebony’s success. 

On to JET

Johnson started publishing JET magazine in 1951 as a weekly small-format publication that could be held in one hand. It was initially billed as “The Weekly Negro News Magazine.” 

JET kept track of the civil rights movement from its earliest years, including the murder of Emmett Till, the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, and the activities of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Weekly ‘Beauty’ 

One of its most notable features was the JET Beauty of the Week, a picture of a weekly assortment of Black female stars, starlets, models, college students, and other women in swimsuits. 

JET printed in all or mostly black-and-white until 1999, when it went to color. In 2009, JET added a double issue published once each month to its regular weekly issue. JPC published the final print issue under its ownership on June 23, 2014. 

Although all of the magazines achieved a measure of success, Ebony was the flagship. After 40 years of continuous publication, in 1985, Ebony had a circulation of 2.3 million copies a month and was the primary reason that Johnson was listed as one of the 400 richest Americans at the time. 

Later JPC publications included African American Stars and Ebony Jr., a children’s magazine. 

Other ventures

During Johnson’s long entrepreneurial career, JPC owned  Fashion Fair Cosmetics, which became the world’s top makeup and skincare company for women of color. 

JPC’s Ebony Fashion Fair, supervised by Johnson’s wife Eunice, became the world’s largest travelling fashion show and donated millions to local charities. Every year, the show would visit more than 200 cities in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean.

JPC also owned a book division, three radio stations, and a television production company. 

John H. Johnson died on August 8, 2005.

Information from the Trice Edney News Wire, the New York Times, and Wikipedia was used to prepare this report.

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