Throughout the twentieth century, most mainstream U.S. publications were reticent to bring more than one — if any — Black photographers on staff, resulting in a biased depiction of the issues facing the Black America. Understanding the truth in journalist H. L. Mencken’s dictum, “Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one,” businessman John Harold Johnson founded the Johnson Publishing Company in Chicago in 1942 to provide Black America with media made by, for, and about the community.
In 1945, the Johnson Publishing Company launched Ebony, which quickly became Black America’s answer to LIFE magazine. Rather than appropriate white culture, Ebony offered an inside view into a striving Black bourgeois through a series of photo essays and features on celebrities and current events. For 75 years, Ebony was the forerunner of Black American culture, chronicling the times, and offering a visual history of the nation from segregation through Civil Rights, and beyond. Ebony, which filed for bankruptcy liquidation in June 2020 and was sold to Bridgeman Sports and Media, officially relaunched as a free digital magazine on March 1st, 2021.
“As one of the few individuals who know of a world before Ebony, let me tell you, John Johnson’s magazine was a game-changer, and remains one to this day,” retired educator Hazel S. Red says in Lavaille Lavette’s sumptuous new book Ebony: Covering Black America (Rizzoli New York). “It has been a vehicle by which we have maintained our dignity and sanity through our efforts to achieve true justice and equality for all.”
Black Is Beautiful
“The Black press has been a mainstay and a savior to our community in terms of recording and sharing our story when others could not or would not,” says Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. Ebony not only told the stories others did not report — it also presented a luminous portrait of Black glamour, style, and beauty. Here, Black folk were icons and legends in their own right, providing readers with a sense of possibility that invited them to dream of possibilities beyond their immediate circumstance.
By creating a space for conversations about political, cultural, economic issues, Ebony provided a voice for the Black community liberated from the biases and bigotry of mainstream media. Featuring essays by tennis champ Venus Williams, music executive Sean Combs, fashion designer Kimora Lee Simmons, pop star Ciara, rapper Common, and power couple Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union, Ebony: Covering Black America presents a vibrant portrait of the men and women who transformed world events.
Organized into chapters on civil rights and social justice, love and family, men, women, and music, the book is a visual tour de force, providing reproductions of covers and spreads from iconic issues of the magazine. Portraits of luminaries like jazz singer Billie Holiday, activist Betty Shabazz, boxer Muhammad Ali, superstar Michael Jackson, and President Barack Obama trace the progress of history, one photograph at a time.
“Growing up in the South during the ‘70s, Ebony magazine was one of the few places where a Black kid like me could see possibilities outside of my small town,” says engineer John Thibodeaux. “Ebony gave me confidence that my future was not limited to my surroundings.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
Ebony: Covering Black America
By Lavaille Lavette
Published by Rizzoli New York