Progress Digitizing the Johnson Publishing Archive, a Vast Resource in African American HistoryBreaking News
tags: historic preservation, African American history, publishing, archives
Rows upon rows of ordinary-looking boxes, stacked high and surrounded by fencing, fill an unassuming warehouse in Chicago.
But what’s inside these boxes is anything but ordinary. Photographs of Ray Charles taking business calls, Louis Armstrong celebrating his birthday, Maya Angelou lounging on her bed, and millions more intimate and striking images of Black celebrities and everyday life are tucked away in the vast Johnson Publishing Company (JPC) archive.
“Once you start reading the names on the boxes, then you say ‘Ohhh…’ To me, that’s exciting,” said Vickie Wilson, who was the publishing company’s archival specialist for 20 years and is now consulting with Getty on the project to archive and digitize these materials and make them available to the public.
The Johnson Publishing Company produced iconic magazines including Ebony and Jet and its archive is regarded as one of the most significant collections of 20th century Black American culture. The archive contains around 5,000 magazines, 200 boxes of business records, 10,000 audio and visual recordings, and 4.5 million prints and negatives that chronicle Black life from the 1940s until the present day—not only preeminent figures like Muhammed Ali and Aretha Franklin, but also scenes of ordinary life like high school graduations and vacations, which weren’t often documented or celebrated in other publications.
After the publishing company filed for bankruptcy in 2019, a consortium comprising five institutions including the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Smithsonian Institution purchased the archive. Getty committed $30 million in support of the processing and digitization of the archive, which will make the collection available to scholars, journalists, and the general public like it never has before.
Last year, ownership of the archive was officially transferred to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and Getty. Since then, the two institutions have been laying important groundwork so that this fall, the monumental task of digitizing the entire archive, making it available it to a brand-new website, and moving the materials to their new home in Washington, DC, can truly begin.