The Fire Sale at Johnson Publishing Company Feels Like Karma

The Fire Sale at Johnson Publishing Company Feels Like Karma
Linda Johnson Rice handles some of the archived photos at Johnson Publishing. The Publisher of Ebony magazines is selling its historic photos. (Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune)

by Zondra Hughes

When I read the Chicago Tribune article about Johnson Publishing Company selling its storied archive of African American images with the hope of getting $40 million (that’s about $8 per image, thanks Luvvie), I immediately thought of Hurricane Katrina.

In 2005, I was an Associate Editor at Ebony magazine. At that time, I was tasked with producing the monthly Beauty & Style feature, a story on campus fashions.

We were working on the 60th anniversary issue of Ebony, so instead of using models and shooting the story in-house, a photographer and myself were assigned to travel to the picturesque campus of Dillard University and to use actual students for the shoot.

We traveled to New Orleans in late June.

The photographer and I spent two days in the sweltering heat, styling the unpaid student models and photographing them in various areas on Dillard’s campus. On our last day, we gave the students our business cards and thanked them for their time. SEE the photos here.

That August, Hurricane Katrina struck Dillard University leaving more than $300 million in damages in its wake. One of the Dillard University student coordinators (who worked with us to organize the photo shoot) called me at work and asked for help.

Dillard University after the storm.

Dillard University after the storm.

Several of the young women that we photographed were stranded at a shelter, and they needed assistance.

“I’m sorry to call you at work like this,” she said, “but if there was anyone that could help us, I knew Ebony could.”

And she was right; John H. Johnson, founder of Johnson Publishing, was deeply connected with the plight of the poor and he was generous. (During my first week on the job, a delivery person stole money out of my purse, and Mr. Johnson personally replenished it.)

But Mr. Johnson had passed away.

I was twenty-something, newly divorced, and in-between paychecks, and so I didn’t have a thing to send but my prayers.

Nevertheless, I wrote a memo to my immediate supervisors, and informed them that our unpaid Beauty & Style models were stranded and needed help. My supervisor was embarrassed to tell me that the memo was ignored.

I sent the memo to a colleague at the sister publication Jet magazine, because at the time, there was an ongoing promotion for and the Jet promo team was handling it. The promo was a college care kit giveaway–and surely we could send a few of those. The college care kits contained shampoo, soap, treats, etc., that the young women sorely needed. That request was DENIED.


I wrote a memo and sent it to the highest ranking person I knew, and was told: “We don’t have anything to send…except discontinued Fashion Fair lipstick. We can send them some of that.”

When I returned to my cubicle, there was a mass memo sent that informed the workerbees that Johnson Publishing Company donated to the Red Cross, and that employees were invited to also give to match that donation.

Finally, I went to the money man, John Cater, a vice president in the sales department, and he called a contact at Wal-Mart. Mr. Cater arranged for $200 gift cards to be sent to the women.

Email received after a Dillard contact received her gift card.

Email received after a Dillard contact received her gift card.

A few months later, I received a second call, this time from one of the Dillard University public relations officers.  Her request was simple: “Ebony took the last images of Dillard University before the Hurricane. May we have some of those?”

I sent a memo; the answer was no. Flat-out no; no images were to be given, and none were to be sold. “Wow,” she said. “Ok.” Yes, I was embarrassed.

When the 60th anniversary issue arrived, with the late John H. Johnson on the cover; the sunny images of the student models on page 96; and the colorful articles of Ebony’s devotion to Black love and achievement nestled in between, it made me sick to my stomach.

In my mind, JPC missed an opportunity to make a meaningful impact in the lives of those Dillard University students-turned-Hurricane Katrina victims, who had modeled for the magazine, for free. (Personally, I never forgave myself for frivolously spending money and not having a dime to send to those students. I disconnected emotionally from the company; the long hours just didn’t make sense anymore. Soon enough I was fired and I later launched a rewarding career as an author.)


I know firsthand that journalism has changed dramatically, and painful decisions must be made if a traditional media company like JPC is to remain in the black.

But I also know that karma is real, and something in my gut tells me that not allowing Dillard University to have a single image back then, may be related to the fire sale of their entire collection of images right now.

I’m just saying.

Follow Zondra Hughes on Twitter @ZondraHughes.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Six Brown Chicks or ChicagoNow.

UPDATE: One of the Dillard University ladies found me on Twitter.  She still has the discontinued lipstick I sent.




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