Ebony saves, shares archive of photos rich with history
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA email@example.com January 18, 2013 3:48PM
"To go through these files (Ebony archives) is like stepping back in time and putting yourself inside a piece of history," said Linda Johnson Rice, chairman of Johnson Publishing in Chicago. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times
Updated: February 21, 2013 6:29AM
One picture captures a moment.
More than 4 million photographs document a movement that changed the course of America.
In November, Ebony magazine debuted the Ebony Collection, an online store (at www.ebony.com/store) that sells prints of 2,000 photos selected from the magazine’s archives. The pictures for sale were handpicked by Linda Johnson Rice, chairman of Johnson Publishing. She had no help in choosing the images.
Johnson Rice is the 54-year-old daughter of Johnson Publishing founders John H. and Eunice W. Johnson. (Desiree Rogers, formerly social secretary for President Barack Obama, was named Johnson Publishing CEO in 2010.)
The photos date back to 1942, even before Ebony was started in 1945.
“To go through these files is like stepping back in time and putting yourself inside a piece of history,” Johnson Rice said during a private tour of the archives. “Ebony followed Nat King Cole and his wife [Marie Ellington] on their  honeymoon. From the minute they got on their plane to the minute they got off their plane in Acapulco. You can’t do that now. (Cole recounts in the story, “Down at the beach the next morning I gave Marie a piggy-back ride and then lounged around watching the waves.”)
“Then there are pictures of Martin Luther King with his family. Downtime. Not preaching, not protesting, not marching, but playing with his kids.”
Like sleeping giants, the photos rest in manila folders, filed alphabetically by subject in a chilly climate-controlled space.
The archive space, not open to the public, was custom built for Johnson Publishing for its new offices atop the Borg-Warner building across the street from the Art Institute of Chicago. The publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines sold its 820 S. Michigan office space to Columbia College in 2010.
Markers lead into rows of history: “Dick Gregory to Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson.”
“It is the first time we’ve opened this archive,” Johnson Rice said. “This has been a very cherished and private archive.” Prices range from $35 up to $1,000 depending on frames and the size of the image.
The archives also include slides and oversized prints kept in chemically treated boxes. “Those oversized prints are probably the oldest pieces we have,” Johnson Rice said as she put on a pair of white gloves to handle the pictures. “What’s most exciting is that all the people we have chronicled in Ebony since 1945 are in here. One of my favorite photographs in the entire collection is of Martin Luther King. He is wearing a tuxedo vest. He is reading the International Herald-Tribune and he’s about to accept his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. This shows him in a relaxed moment, getting ready to put on his jacket and walk out and accept his peace prize. It is an amazing photo.”
A majestic sepia-toned image of Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks swinging away at home plate hangs in the office hallway at Johnson Publishing. Banks signed the portrait to Gregory Simms, then associate editor of Jet, and dated it: Jan. 20, 1977.
“Ebony was so important to me,” Banks said last week. “It made a difference with black America. I spent a lot of time with John Johnson. When I got into marketing with the Cubs, I sold him a skybox at Wrigley Field. He was one of the first minorities to buy a skybox at Wrigley. I learned a lot about commitment and dedication from him.”
Johnson died in 2005 at the age of 87. Last year the U.S. Postal Service honored Johnson with a commemorative stamp as part of its Black Heritage Series.
Many observers called Johnson’s decision to publish Emmett Till’s open casket photograph his greatest moment. The picture ran in the Sept. 15, 1955, issue of Jet. The photo was taken by staff photographer David Jackson.
“My father was a little frightened at first to show the photo,” Johnson Rice said. “But he wanted to show the reality of racism, how real it was, and how it manifested itself. This picture, as raw as it is, showed the brutality of racism to the general public, something African-Americans were already aware of. It was a significant point of history in the deep divide between black and white in the South.”
John Johnson founded Ebony to fill a void in African-American identity. His wife came up with the name of the magazine. They launched on a $500 loan from Johnson Rice’s grandmother.
“I grew up in this world of Johnson Publishing,” Johnson Rice reflected. “But it wasn’t until I got to high school [at the University of Chicago Laboratory School] that I recognized the impact my parents had on African-Amercian society. That’s because my friend’s parents were friends of theirs, and they talked about my parents and the things they accomplished.
“You have to understand, at the time Ebony started, and actually throughout the years, there were very few places African-American photographers could have their work displayed. We have an extensive array of photographers that were on staff. This was a great place for them to show their work.”
Most notable is the work of Pulitzer Prize winner Moneta J. Sleet Jr.
Sleet was an Ebony photographer from 1955 until his death at age 70 in 1996. His photograph of Coretta Scott King holding her downcast daughter at the funeral services of the Rev. King won the 1969 Pulitzer for feature photography. Sleet was the first African-American man to win the prize, and it was the first Pulitzer given to anyone working for an African-American publication.
His son is Chief Judge Gregory M. Sleet in U.S. District Court in Delaware.
“I’ve come to learn my dad’s work was foundational to the success of Ebony,” Sleet said from his chambers in Wilmington, Del. “After my father’s passing, Mr. Johnson promised to do a book of my father’s work [“Special Moments in African-American History, 1955-1996: The Photographs of Moneta Sleet, Jr.,” 1998 Johnson Publishing Co.]. I traveled to Chicago several times to discuss that with Mr. Johnson. I remember the first time I stepped off the elevator into the executive offices there was a lovely showcase, and there in the middle of the showcase was my father’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo.
“One of my favorite images of my dad’s is a photograph he took of a regal guard with a sidearm standing in front of an elaborate stairway in a palace in Khartoum [in Sudan]. You can see the light sweeping down the marble columns. My dad went there [in 1957] with Vice President [Richard] Nixon. I’m looking at it right now. It is hanging in my chambers. It is a wonderful image, one only an artist could take.”
The Sleet family was based in Long Island, N.Y. Ebony and Jet sent Sleet to Liberia, Libya, Ghana, Nigeria, South America and the West Indies, as well as across a rapidly changing America.
Said Johnson Rice, “Everything is grounded in your roots. We are proud of who we are and our heritage. We’ve chronicled tons of musicians in these files, and their music is as relevant today as it was 40 years ago.”
Johnson Rice walked down one of the narrow aisles. She pulled out one folder, “Here’s Joan Baez.” She pulled out another and said, “Louis Jordan.” At the dawn of rock ’n’ roll, Jordan leads his band in one black-and-white image. Perhaps he’s calling for his 1944 hit “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby.” But the meaning is clear: unbridled joy and vision.
Another photo book is not out of the question. “We are considering a book that would encompass a curated section of the best photos we have from all our different photographers,” Johnson Rice said.
“My father was very brilliant in wanting to own and control as much of the things that go along with the company as he could,” Johnson Rice said. “The magazine business is not only about the written word, but also about the photographs. They tell a story as well. To lose your photographs, you lose your history and the legacy of what happened to African-Americans from 1942 to the present. We want to be able to hold on to that. This is so important to cherish this.”