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'Something worth saving': Historic Ebony photo archive to be auctioned off to pay creditors

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Emmett Till lying in his coffin. Martin Luther King Jr.’s wife, Coretta Scott King, mourning at her husband’s funeral. Images of those iconic moments along with 4 million other photographs that capture seven decades of black life in America are set to be auctioned off this week.

The historic photo archive of Ebony and Jet is being sold by the magazines’ now-bankrupt former publisher Johnson Publishing Company. The auction, organized by Hilco Streambank, is scheduled for Wednesday  in Chicago.

Richelle Kalnit, senior vice president at Hilco Streambank, called the collection, which also includes thousands of hours of video and music, “quite unmatched.”

“There’s no other source to be able to chronicle what this community has achieved since the civil rights movement, starting with that historic movement and the accomplishments all the way through to President Obama,” said Kalnit. “Nobody did this in the 1940s, nobody did this in the civil rights movement other than the Johnson Publishing Company.”

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  • Louis Armstrong with his trusty trumpet by his side, pecks out Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, his autobiography, between night club shows in Chicago. Satchmo has written 250 pages of book.2 of 27
  • Boxing great Muhammad Ali is photographed in full swing against opponent Floyd Patterson in December 1965 fight.3 of 27
  • James Baldwin prepares to leave a Greenwich Village apartment building in which he lives.4 of 27
  • Playing dominoes by feel, Ray Charles has game with Herman Roberts.5 of 27
  • Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinetra share a stage as the sing one of their many duets in 1958.6 of 27
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  • Chicago Bears running back legend, Walter Payton, is photographed in front of Chicago's Hilton Hotel.13 of 27
  • Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and son Skipper enjoy father-son time on the dock.14 of 27
  • Rock star Prince, is pictured performing on stage in 1985.15 of 27
  • Former President Richard Nixon is photographed visiting Africa and shaking hands with country leaders.16 of 27
  • Rev. Ike preaches in his United Church in Washington Heights section of New York City.17 of 27
  • American jazz singer Sarah Vaughan gracefully poses for a photo shoot.18 of 27
  • Legendary jazz singer Sarah Vaughan takes her time in getting ready in her dressing room.19 of 27
  • Melvin Van Peebles showcases his famous film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.20 of 27
  • Sammy Davis Jr, Dave Halper, and singer Nat King Cole,are photographed at Chez, Paree, 1955.21 of 27
  • Entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. is named  to the National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity by  President Richard Nixon as his wife Altovise Davis looks on in 1971.22 of 27
  • Count Basie and Duke Ellington perforom at the Apollo Theatre in New York.23 of 27
  • Miles Davis Mean Man of Music featured in June 1960 Tan Magazine.24 of 27
  • Hazel Scott, performing at the Mocambo, August 1955.25 of 27
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The archive was once valued at $46 million but the minimum bid for all the assets is $12.5 million, according to Kalnit. She declined to name any potential buyers but said that a number of institutions, celebrities and high-net-worth individuals have shown an interest in the collection.

Whoever gets the photos will determine whether the public will have access to the historic archives. An interested party could, for example, buy only the copyrights to monetize and license the photographs, while another party could get the physical copies to keep in a personal collection, Kalnit explained. 

The archive is organized by subject matter, so its also possible a buyer could purchase all the photos of a particular person or event. While dividing up the archive like this would be “administratively difficult,” Kalnit said she would welcome any such inquiries.

‘Something worth saving’

The collection includes photographs of Martin Luther King Jr., Sammy Davis Jr., Diana Ross, Nat “King” Cole, Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Prince and Stevie Wonder. There are also snapshots of everyday life with images depicting the black church, food and fashion.

While some of the best known images in the collection capture key moments in African-American history, the collection’s archivist Vickie Wilson said her personal favorites are the quirky ones.  

Wilson, who’s worked for Johnson publishing for more than 20 years, is particularly fond of the shots of Ray Charles playing dominoes, Eartha Kitt working in her garden and a photo of Muhammad Ali sitting in his car with a full-size record player.

The photos not only captured history but also helped change it, according to Samir Husni, a magazine industry analyst and journalism professor at the University of Mississippi.

“When they published the image of Emmett Till in the magazine, that was the beginning of the national civil rights movement,” Husni said.

Husni said he hopes that whoever purchases the collection will donate it to a museum, like the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

“It’s something worth saving. … This is not something that one individual ought to have or keep for themselves,” Husni said. “This is a history that should be open for everybody.”

A series of blows

The auction is the latest in a series of blows to rock Ebony and its staff. Soon after Johnson Publishing founder John H. Johnson died in 2005, things at the magazine started changing for the worse, according to Lynn Norment, a 30-year veteran of Ebony.

“I do think that people were brought in who didn’t understand or didn’t care about identifying with the core Ebony audience,” Norment said. “The people who were running the magazine, they didn’t read Ebony, they didn’t grow up with it.”

Johnson Publishing sold the magazine in 2016 to a private equity firm called Clear View Group.   

Michael Gibson, co-founder and chairman of CVG, declined to comment on the auction. But in a statement to USA TODAY, he reiterated Ebony’s commitment to “showcasing the best and brightest of black life.” 

“That commitment has been cornerstone to how the business has evolved over nearly 75 years. What has changed is the climate and culture of the media industry. In this tumultuous era, the Ebony brand continues its drive to be a recognized leader across various media channels,” Gibson wrote. “Though print operations are currently on hiatus, Ebony.com continues to thrive and our focus on delivering quality content in digital format.” 

Johnson Publishing declared bankruptcy in April of this year and soon after announced it would be selling the archive to repay a debt owed to an entity controlled by business woman Mellody Hobson, who was just named co-CEO of Ariel Investments, and her husband, filmmaker George Lucas.

The couple’s company filed a motion in bankruptcy court in Illinois to try to take control of the archive, but they were unsuccessful.

Under its new ownership, Ebony has struggled to pay freelancers and staff writers, leading to at least one lawsuit. With mismanagement plaguing Ebony and other outlets beginning to cover black issues, Husni said its unlikely the magazine will survive.

‘Sad and frustrating’: Ebony magazine’s digital staff abruptly laid off without pay as asset auction looms

“I really doubt that we’re going to see a resurgence of Ebony,” Husni said. “There’s nothing wrong with dying; even people die.”

Norment said she’s not sure there’s another outlet that could fill the void Ebony would leave behind.

“My heart and soul my life has been with the black press for so long that it hurts me,” she said. “At this point I just don’t know if there’s a successor.”

Follow N’dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg

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