Last July, Colorlines reported that a consortium of nonprofits announced it had acquired the full archive of Johnson Publishing Company (JPC), which includes the iconic Jet and Ebony magazines. On March 11, the MacArthur Foundation announced the formation of an Advisory Council that will “inform the preservation and future use of the historic photographic collection—which includes 3.35 million negatives and slides, 983,000 photographs,166,000 contact sheets, and 9,000 audio and visual recordings illustrating Black life in the 20th century”—to ensure the archive is made available for broad public use.

“The iconic archive from ‘Ebony’ and ‘Jet’ magazines tells a story about the African American experience in the 20th century that is far too often overlooked,” said Andrew W. Mellon Foundation president Elizabeth Alexander. “Preserving this collection and making it accessible to all is integral to the vision shared by this consortium.”

The archive, which tells the history of Black Americans from World War II through the civil rights movement and the 1990s, will allow viewers to see moments in the lives of iconic individuals and activists—such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Maya Angelou and Shirley Chisholm—in addition to athletes, artists, entertainers, poets, politicians, students, writers and everyday people. A collaboration between several prominent arts foundations, the consortium will safeguard these cultural treasures for the public, with the advice of council chair Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress, as well as Louise Bernard, Dawoud Bey, Darlene Clark Hine, Meredith Evans, Jonathan Holloway, Kellie Jones, Richard Powell, Brent Staples, Jacquelyn Stewart and Deborah Willis.

The archive, currently housed in Chicago where it will remain until its transfer to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Getty Research Institute, will eventually be turned into a digital archive that the public can access and search using a database. “MacArthur and the Johnson Publishing Company share a hometown in Chicago, and we are delighted to offer a first peek of this unique and iconic collection of American life,” said John Palfrey, MacArthur Foundation president.

“This collection presents an extraordinary visual experience that will provide scholars, researchers, journalists and the wider public an unparalleled opportunity to explore the nuances and intricacies of 20th century African American culture,” said Spencer Crew, interim director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. “We are eager to make the archive accessible for widespread use for generations to come.”

This summer, in Chicago, the MacArthur Foundation will host an event for the public to showcase selected images from the archives. 

Visit the MacArthur Foundation to learn more about the project.