STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Photographs of famed African Americans are on sale today in Chicago. One shows Muhammad Ali relaxing in front of a fireplace. Another shows Lena Horne performing onstage. They are pictures from the archives of Ebony and Jet magazines. Some are inspiring, and some - we should warn you - are disturbing. Carrie Shepherd of WBEZ had a look.
CARRIE SHEPHERD, BYLINE: For more than 20 years, Vickie Wilson has been the archivist for Johnson Publishing, the parent company of Ebony and Jet. Wilson works at a nondescript warehouse on Chicago's West Side. She shows me rows and rows of cardboard boxes and file cabinets.
VICKIE WILSON: I think I have one of Miles Davis in a corner somewhere - Malcolm Day through Dorothy Dandridge. And then another box you'll see is Dr. King, which - he has several boxes, you know, ranging from his funeral and the early marches.
SHEPHERD: The sale of more than 1 million photos is to pay off Johnson Publishing's bankruptcy debt, which is between $10 and $50 million. For many African Americans, Ebony and Jet were a constant presence on their coffee tables growing up. They saw celebrations of success, like Aretha Franklin and Arthur Ashe.
But there were also issues that reflected communal mourning. One of the most important photos in the collection is of Emmett Till from 1955. Till was a 14-year-old Chicago boy who was brutally murdered in Mississippi. His mother Mamie wanted the world to see what two white men had done to her child, so she asked Ebony to print the gruesome photograph.
WILSON: From his funeral - images of the body.
SHEPHERD: Oh, there's Mamie.
WILSON: Right. That's his mother. That's when they had viewed the body.
SHEPHERD: Oh, my God. Oh, my God.
SHEPHERD: Emmett Till's face is swollen and disfigured beyond recognition. Everything from the photos of Till to the Pulitzer Prize-winning image of a forlorn and tired Coretta Scott King at Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral are on the auction block. But it's unclear who will have the winning bid. Gabe Fried is with the company handling the auction.
GABE FRIED: The auction's only open to bidders who have qualified both in terms of demonstrating financial wherewithal, and some of these interested parties have asked that they remain anonymous.
SHEPHERD: Lee Bey is a Chicago photographer and author, and he's heard some chatter about at least one interested party.
LEE BEY: The rumor and the hope - you know, Mellody Hobson and George Lucas.
SHEPHERD: Mellody Hobson is a Chicago native who runs Capital Holdings with her husband George Lucas, who, of course, created "Star Wars." According to court filings, the company is one of Johnson Publishing's creditors, and they could buy the archive to recoup some of their investment. If that happens, the hope is the archive becomes available to the public and researchers. Lee Bey says some of the most interesting photos to him show people who were and perhaps still are ignored by other media outlets.
BEY: This black sheriff who's the sheriff in Klan country down south. Who is that guy? Am I going to find his image in The New York Times or someplace else? Probably not. But Ebony had it.
SHEPHERD: The private auction for the Ebony and Jet photo archive is scheduled for today.
For NPR News, I'm Carrie Shepherd in Chicago.
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