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Foundations donate historic Jet/Ebony archive to African American Museum

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An archive of more than 4 million photographs from the publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines will be given to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles and other cultural institutions.

The Ford, Andrew W. Mellon and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundations and the J. Paul Getty Trust paid $30 million to acquire the archive from Johnson Publishing. The collection is considered by some to be the most important visual archive of 20th century African American life and culture.

Announced Thursday, the purchase is pending court approval since it is part of an auction of the company’s assets in connection with its bankruptcy proceeding.

The purchase and donation will ensure broad access to the collection by the public, as well as by scholars and researchers, according to the foundations.

“The archive is a national treasure and one of tremendous importance to the telling of black history in America,” Ford Foundation President Darren Walker said in a statement. “We felt it was imperative to preserve these images, to give them the exposure they deserve and make them readily available to the public.”

The archive includes photographs of political, social and artistic leaders — including Muhammad Ali, Aretha Franklin and Martin Luther King Jr. — as well as images of historic importance, such as the mutilated body of Emmett Till in his coffin.

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Johnson Publishing was one of the founding donors to the Smithsonian museum, which opened on the Mall in 2016.

“The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is proud to collaborate with the consortium and the Getty Research Institute on this important endeavor to preserve and share the richness of these iconic publications,” Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the African American Museum, said in a statement. “Ebony and Jet magazine helped shape our nation’s history, allowing Americans — of all colors — to see the full panorama of the African American experience. Together, our organizations will ensure these images, stories and the history of these publications are well-preserved and available to the public and future generations.”