Secured in a climate-controlled archive in Chicago are five million images of the African American experience dating back to the '40s. Inside rest rare images of black business owners and professionals, and intimate photographs of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., singer Billie Holiday and boxer Muhammad Ali, among others.
Now Johnson Publishing, parent company of struggling Ebony and Jet magazines, is seeking a buyer for the archive, which it estimates is worth more than $40 million.
"Nothing exists like it. It's almost like an African American Getty,'' said Johnson Publishing Chief Executive Desiree Rogers, referring to the renowned Getty photojournalism archive. "We are still the curators of the African American experience. That's the mantle the editors wear,'' she said.
Johnson has contracted Mark Lubell, executive director of the International Center of Photography in New York, to help get the collection appraised and find a buyer. Rogers would not comment on potential buyers or whether commercial or historical archives had expressed interest.
The company spent 18 months organizing images but has only digitized about 6,000 of the millions of photographs and videos, said Rogers, President Barack Obama's former White House social secretary. Johnson Publishing makes little money off the rights to the images. Facing declining readership and ad revenue, like much of the magazine industry, Jet magazine went digital-only last year.
The archive includes the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo by Moneta Sleet, Jr., of Coretta Scott King with her daughter Bernice on her lap, at the funeral of her husband, Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1969 Sleet became the first African American man to win a Pulitzer prize. Over many years working for Ebony, Sleet photographed King and his family and covered the civil rights movement as well as black leaders and politicians such as Adam Clayton Powell, entertainers such as Stevie Wonder and sports greats.
—Reuters contributed to this report.