Landmarks Illinois volunteers disassembling the Ebony Test Kitchen in 2018 from the former Johnson Publishing Company Building in Chicago, which was set to be redeveloped, putting the iconic kitchen at risk of being demolished. Photo credit: Landmarks Illinois Communications

Facing demolition, the iconic Ebony Test Kitchen finds a new home

8 mins read

For more than 78 years, Ebony Magazine reigned supreme in not only feeding the souls, but also the minds of Black Americans. After the threat of being trashed, the Former Johnson Publishing Co.’s, Ebony Test Kitchen has been permanently acquired by the Smithsonian.

“Then Ebony arrived in 1945… to inform us and assure us that our lives were so important, they could never be edited out of the history of our people.” Maya Angelou in “Then Ebony Arrived,” November 1995 issue.

From its November 1945 inaugural issue, Ebony Magazine (Ebony) fueled itself by adhering to their mission of presenting and documenting the many contributions of African Americans. Where mainstream media often skewed or entirely omitted Black folks, Ebony celebrated Black excellence in the greater American, cultural landscape.

“Few magazines dealt with Blacks as human beings with human needs,” wrote John H. Johnson, the magazine’s founder in his November 1975 publisher’s statement of the 30th anniversary issue. He added, “Fewer magazines dealt with the whole spectrum of Black life,”. 

Due to the Great Migration of the early 20th Century, approximately six million African Americans left the rural south for better opportunities in the bustling cities in the North, Midwest and West. This included Chicago where Johnson Publishing Co. was birthed.

The African American resettlement in Chicago spawned a political, artistic, and creative explosion compared to that of Harlem’s. Called the Black Chicago Renaissance, the Windy City’s cultural and social influence, in many respects, went unparalleled. Historian and African American Studies professor, Darlene Clark Hine argued that the “creative force . . . watered and replenished” by Black southerners in Harlem, resurfaced in Chicago with much more intensity. In turn, their determination to craft a space and reconstruct power as they “refined themselves as urban and northern,” set the tone for the first Black mayor of a major U.S. city, and other significant achievements.

Highly accomplished authors such as Richard Wright, Lorraine Hainsberry, Gwendolyn Brooks and Haki R. Madhibuti left their impact on the cultural topography of Chicago by exploring the nuances of urban life. Plus journalism mammoth, Ida B. Wells Barnett, a native of Mississippi like many Chicagoans, re-established her roots there and a legacy of advocacy work. Inevitably, this renaissance reached the tenth floor of the Johnson Publishing Co., where Black chefs perfected and crafted the recipes of their rich lineage in the Ebony Test Kitchen.

Food is revolutionary

Ebony captured the finesse of African Americans in every word, photo, and even in each bite of American culinary history. A popular section of print in many publications was its recipe section, which is something the Black-centered magazine regularly installed with its test kitchen.

Built in 1972, the test kitchen was known for its vibrant visual aesthetic. It was often described as “psychedelic” and embracing of “Afrocentric modernism,” a concept that combines the traditional art and culture of the African diaspora with the visual aspect of modernist design. 

“I liken it to a kind of Afrocentric Modernism, where there are colors and fabrics, and leather and ostrich feathers and wallpaper with angled patterns on it and every floor looks different,” described Lee Bay, adjunct professor of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Sporting a bold look of bright swirled orange, purple, brown and avocado green hues; the kitchen was coupled with modern, all-electric appliances and amenities that were revolutionary for the 1970s, the kitchen was described as having unforgettable appeal. While modern for its time, it had the familiar feel of grandma’s kitchen, complete with the delicate wallpaper and aged pots used to feed generations.

In a description of the ambience by Charlotte Lyons, the former food editor of Ebony from 1985 to 2010, she recollected the kitchen vividly. “You could almost taste the colors, smell the colors; it made you happy,” detailed Lyons.

The Ebony Test Kitchen at the Museum of Food and Drink in New York City. Photo credit: Landmarks Illinois

More importantly, Ebony’s test kitchen was where cooking instructions were tested and prepared before they were published. “The kitchen was a place where recipes were reimagined, flavors were explored and stories were shared—a place that celebrates Black history and culture in a way that was not only inspiring but delicious,” said Kevin Young, the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

Some of the most adored and entertaining sections of the magazine were the cooking columns, “Date With a Dish” and “Your Favorite Recipe.” In all, there were three editors at the test kitchen. Freda De Knight, Ebony’s first food editor from 1946 to 1963, started the magazine’s food column. Then Charla L. Draper brightened the column’s photography and inaugurated the “Your Favorite Recipe” feature. She was there from 1982 to 1984. Finally, the last to serve as Ebony’s food columnist for the test kitchen was Lyons. During her tenure, she modified recipes for modern dietary needs and simplified them for both novice cooks and amateur chefs.

Over the years, Ebony chefs provided thousands of decadent recipes with households. However, this relationship was communal. In turn, readers also shared their recipes, with the culinarians’ favorites featured in the magazine. Through Draper’s “Your Favorite Recipe,” select readers’ submitted ingredients to a dish were tested, paid for, and published.

Along with connecting with its average audience, this section hosted many notables such as Mike Tyson, Michael Jackson, Sammy Davis Jr. and President Barack Obama. 

In 2020, Ulysses “Junior” Bridgeman bought Ebony out of bankruptcy in a $14 million purchase. His daughter, Eden Bridgeman Sklenar, serves as its CEO. In its relaunch, the publication which is now only in digital format, brought back the “Date with a Dish” section, but added a contemporary twist.

Preserving history

Until 2010, the Ebony Test Kitchen was up and running before being put out of use after Johnson Publishing Co. downsized and sold the building to Columbia College. In 2018, Columbia College decided to demolish the kitchen after they sold the property to 3L Real Estate. Fortunately, the combined efforts of volunteers from Landmarks Illinois, a Chicago-based nonprofit, saved the historic kitchen by documenting each component of the area, then dismantling each part of the cookery to preserve it. This was after they purchased the test kitchen for only $1.

In 2022, the Museum of Food and Drink took the initiative to restore and update elements of the test kitchen for its exhibition “African-American: Making the Nation’s Table.” Currently the kitchen is taking permanent residence at NMAAHC. 

“Landmarks Illinois looks forward to working collaboratively with our advisory panel and with potential future partners who share a vision for preserving this culturally significant piece of history from the country’s most influential African American publisher of its time,” said Bonnie McDonald, President and CEO of Landmarks Illinois.

This sentiment is shared by generations of cooks, confectioners and chefs like Khari Hairston El, owner of Bakersfield, California-based cheesecake company, JaJa Bakery. “The importance of things like the Ebony Test Kitchen [finding a home] at the Smithsonian . . . makes sense. [There] . . . people remember [just] how important Black people are to . . . culinary [traditions].” 

Hairston El, who attended Florida A&M University, where he switched from an architecture degree to baking, added, “Many of the foods that we eat today come from what black people create. Either during slavery and after slavery. That is important.”

Kevin Young, Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and Charla Draper, Ebony’s Director of Food & Home Furnishings from 1982 to 1984, at Landmarks Illinois’ 2023 Preservation Forward event at the Old Post Office in Chicago in March 2023. The event is where Landmarks Illinois first shared the news that the NMAAHC would be acquiring the Ebony Test Kitchen. Photo credit: David T. Kindler/ Landmarks Illinois Communications

A media giant amongst us 

The portrayal of Blacks in a segregated country and media often left them invisible in the mainstream press. “It was, for example, rare for radio, newspapers or magazines to take note of the fact that blacks fell in love, got married and participated in organized community activities,” explained Ebony founder. A central mission for Johnson’s magazine was that he wanted to “project all dimensions of the black personality in a world saturated with stereotypes.”

The immensely talented photojournalists and writers of Ebony set the groundwork that helped inspire the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s. This was possible through their production of stellar visual and written commentary that acknowledged Black life and achievement, highlighting both the triumph and tragedy of African Americans. 

Ebony Journalists such as Moneta Sleet Jr., Lerone Bennet Jr., and G Marshall Wilson were some of the pioneers who covered the complexity and  multiplicity of Black life. Bennet Jr., who was the Ebony senior editor for decades, published a segment that educated a newer generation on Black history following World War II.  Additionally, Sleet received the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography after his infamous photo of Coretta Scott King grieving while comforting her youngest daughter Bernice, at Dr. King’s funeral. 

Some of the most memorable and impactful cover stories that are indelible marks in history were covered with depth by Ebony. Like, the monumental 1971 heavyweight brawl between Muhammad Ali and Joe Fraizer. Dubbed as “The Fight of the Century,” the bout decided the new heavyweight champ of the world. 

Another exceptional dimension of Ebony was its photography. A memorable snap shot etched in the minds of Americans was Coretta Scott King, wife of famed, slain Civil Rights stalwart, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., singing with Duke Ellington and Harry Belafonte in 1956. Photographed the same month that the Montgomery Bus Boycott ended, it is a visual that defined an important moment in Americans’ collective archives. Around the same time, the Kings were introduced as social leaders and activists of the Civil Rights Movement to the world. 

In the long-gone tradition of prominent Black notables respecting and seeking out Black press members first, Ebony was often the go-to magazine for decades. The world gasped and the Black community mourned on February 21, 1965, when the beloved advocate for Black empowerment Malcolm X met his untimely death at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. Just a few days prior, on February 16, Ebony captured his final speech before his assisination at Colgate Rochester Divinity School.

These cover stories along with many others cemented Ebony’s unyielding presence in the Black community.  

Future of the Ebony Test Kitchen

While the NMAAHC has no immediate plans to display the actual test kitchen inside the museum, it has taken permanent residence there through a pending digital display. 

The museum seeks to feature the iconic kitchen as part of an initiative highlighting foodways’ integral role in African American culture during the modern era, through digitization. According to Young the kitchen, “is a living, breathing testament to the power of Black excellence and innovation in the culinary world.”

American cuisine comes from the pots and pans of African Americans. The Ebony Test Kitchen is one way that the NMAAHC will narrate the story of a rich foodways and culinary histories often left out of food history. 

For Khari Hairston El, the kitchen served as more than a physical space, but also a space in which the ingenuity and culinary expertise of Black chefs was fostered and allowed to flourish. “We have to have a space to be able to be ourselves. We have to have a space where we can be creative and not have any unnecessary limitations or have people deflect from our creativity.”

Since its 2016 opening, the NMAAHC pairs special exhibitions with its permanent collections. Right now, an Afrofuturism exhibit showcases an exploration of Black identity, agency and freedom through various artforms that all envision liberated futures for Black life. In addition, the “Spirit in the Dark” exhibit examines Black religious life through carefully curated photos and objects.

Now situated in a historical museum that will continue to share its legacy and recipes for many generations to come, the Ebony test Kitchen will forever be a testament of Black culinary lineage.

Junior reporter and Ark Republic writing intern covering news and culture.

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