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LIers etched in iconic Ebony Magazine photo archive share memories

Leanna Archer of Central Islip started her company when she was nine and was featured in Ebony at age 12 for her hair products line, now known as Leanna's Essentials. On June 18, Archer said Ebony chronicled the black experience in a way that widely reached and touched those involved, such as herself.     Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

The images of four Long Islanders — from a millennial entrepreneur to a civil rights pioneer — are among millions in the iconic Ebony and Jet Magazine photo archives that were recently auctioned in Chicago.  

The archives, appraised at $46 million in 2015, were retained by the Johnson Publishing Co. Inc. after Ebony's sale in 2016 to Clear View Group of Texas and are being sold to pay off secured creditors or lienholders, including filmmaker George Lucas and his wife, financier Mellody Hobson, who lent Johnson Publishing $12 million in 2015.

Among the more than 4 million images, including 2,800 that an asset listing calls "crown jewels," is a Pulitzer Prize-winner by late Baldwin resident and longtime Ebony photojournalist Moneta Sleet Jr. of Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King Jr.'s widow, and their 5-year-old daughter, Bernice, at the civil rights leader's funeral.

Sleet’s son, Gregory Sleet, who grew up in Baldwin and now lives in Arden, Delaware, said Tuesday that his father’s photographs reflected a perspective with which Ebony readers could identify. “My dad was a trained journalist, and he would say that when he would go to his assignments he’d cover things from his perspective as a black man growing up in the South,” said Sleet, a retired U.S. District Court judge in Delaware.

The archive's passing from the hands of Johnson Publishing “represents the end of an era,” Sleet said, adding he would like to see the photos end up in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem or at a black university. One of the main things he’s concerned about is the archives being properly preserved. 

"These are very important images," said Tracey Walters, a Stony Brook associate professor of literature and chair of the university's Africana Studies Department. She notes Ebony was a staple in black homes and businesses for decades after its first issue was published in autumn 1945; Jet, a weekly digest, was created as Ebony's sister publication in 1951, and is now available only online.

The four Long Islanders whose stories were featured in Ebony over several decades shared their feelings about their images being indelibly etched on the pages of African-American history by the publication that has chronicled black life for 75 years. 

AHEAD OF HER TIME

Leanna Archer of Central Islip said that when she appeared in Ebony as a child entrepreneur, she felt what it must be like to be a celebrity and the exposure landed her on Wall Street.

“When I woke up on the morning my article came out, I got all these emails and calls,” said Archer, who started what is now the “Leanna’s Essentials” hair products line at age 9, and was profiled in Ebony at 12. “We didn’t wait for the magazine to be delivered — my mother left work early, my father hit the streets and my grandmother went crazy and bought a bunch of copies.”

“It was one of the magazines that was always around growing up, everybody knew about it. It was on coffee tables, in beauty salons and barbershops … wherever you went,'' said Archer, now 23, who appeared in the March 2008 issue. ''After I was in it I got to ring the opening bell” for the start of the day at the New York Stock Exchange, and at the time she was the youngest person to have that honor. Television and other opportunities followed.

HISTORY IN THE MAKING

Sgt. Maj. Joseph McNeil, of Hempstead, made history during an incident cited as the flashpoint for the civil rights movement. Now, 77, the Air Force retiree was one of the “Greensboro Four,” a group of black college students who on Feb. 1, 1960, sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, to protest the store’s policy of serving only white customers. McNeil says the sit-in became a movement through the coverage of Ebony and its sister publication, the print digest, Jet. “Students started sitting in throughout the country,” McNeil said. “Ebony and Jet was our [African American’s] way of getting information to the community on a national level … There was very little TV and just a few other local black publications.”

While the photographs on Ebony's and Jet's pages were intended to inspire, McNeil said at times unsettling and ugly pictures had to be shown.

“Where else were we going to find out about Emmet Till?” McNeil asked. Till was a 14-year-old black boy who was lynched and mutilated in 1955 in Mississippi after being accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery. Photos of Till's badly battered and decomposed body lying in repose were first published by Jet in its Sept. 15, 1955, issue. Only a handful of those pictures were published, but there are dozens of unpublished photographs relating to Till and other subjects that were in the Johnson Publishing archives.

MOVERS AND SHAKERS

Edward Richard Dudley Jr. of Sag Harbor, a retiree and part-time attorney, was featured as one of Ebony’s most eligible bachelors during his stint as an attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney's Office from 1968 to 1973. Dudley's late father, Edward Sr., was a lawyer, judge, civil rights activist, the first black U.S. ambassador, and was part of the African-American elite who lived in New York City and after World War II bought summer homes in Sag Harbor. But Dudley said being in Ebony made him "famous." He received about 300 letters from prospective suitors, he said. 

Dudley, who lives in his parents' former summer house that they purchased in the 1950s, said the black community looked to Ebony for positive black news and role models when only African-Americans criminals were covered by the white mainstream media.

“For the longest time you could pick up the magazine and see what was going on with blacks all around the country,” said Dudley, 76. “In Ebony you could read about black lawyers, pilots and doctors discovering things. It was an inspiration because you would see characters like Rochester on TV." Rochester was a stereotypical black valet on "The Jack Benny Program," which ran from 1950 to 1965.

Dudley said being in Ebony made him proud of his heritage.

"It was like being in the newspaper — but not as a criminal," Dudley said. "It was very nice."

INSPIRED TO EXCEL

Kevan Abrahams, 44, of Freeport, has been a Nassau County legislator for 17 years and describes himself as an "avid reader" of Ebony. He said the positive African-American role models he saw in the magazine inspired him to excel, and he was featured in Ebony's “30 under 30” showcase of outstanding blacks from different walks of life under age 30. Abraham's group included singer Beyoncé and he was profiled as a young legislator in February 2004. 

Ebony gave Abrahams and the other subjects who were featured a special plaque with photos commemorating the experience.

Abrahams said there was something for everyone and both sexes in Ebony — from features on African-Americans with homes in the suburbs, to outstanding black students and health tips — with everyone on its pages always impeccably dressed.

“It was tremendously exciting for me,'' Abrahams recalled of being in Ebony. ''I was humbled. There was a level of prestige. I remember growing up as a kid and sitting in the barbershop with my dad waiting to get a haircut and they'd be on the table."

EBONY and JET photo facts:

— Johnson Publishing Co. Inc. sold its Ebony and Jet publishing operations in 2016, but kept the photo archive and its Fashion Fair Cosmetics business. The archives were first put up for sale in 2015.

— Other young Long Islanders pictured in EBONY include Brittney Grimes, who was featured in the October 2006 issue as a Baldwin High School senior who was one of seven “Terrific Teens” with exceptional talent and drive. At the time she had written more than 200 poems and published five children’s books. She won first place for reciting her poem, “Children of the World,” in Showtime at the Apollo’s talent contest.

— Famous Long Islanders pictured in Jet include entertainers Chrisette Michele (Valley Stream), Mariah Carey (Huntington), Sean “Diddy” Combs (East Hampton), 50 Cent (Dix Hills), Soledad O’Brien (St. James) and the late O.J. Simpson attorney, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. (Sag Harbor Bay).

— The Ebony and Jet photo collections were stored in the Johnson Publishing offices and an art storage facility, both in Chicago.

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