Preserving the Visual History of HBCUs


In June 2008, when a fire raged across Universal Studios in Los Angeles, one of the world’s largest record labels struggled to keep millions of its master recordings safe from the blaze. Though almost all the music that burned that day, including the archives of musicians like Billie Holliday, Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong, is now digitized and available on streaming platforms, the original masters that were destroyed have been referred to by one expert as “the truest capture of a piece of recorded music.”

The story of the fire that decimated Universal Studios’ archives was originally uncovered by the New York Times in 2019 and serves as a reminder: preserving the world’s cultural history is a difficult task, even for organizations with millions of dollars and decades of expertise. In just seconds, a hurricane, flood or any natural disaster can destroy hundreds of years of history. For the global Black community, our history has always been treated as less-than and because historians did not keep copious records to document the life and everyday experiences of Black people, the physical documents that tell those stories, like photographs, are becoming harder to find and preserve.Cassandra IllidgeCassandra Illidge

Our complex history of pain, joy and resilience has never received the proper care or protection that it deserves.  The true stories of our lives have been discounted and buried for far too long. However, there are increasingly more determined individuals who research and uncover the untold or misrepresented truth about our history—American History.

The Black community holds an unquantifiable reverence for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, HBCUs. Over the last 150 years, these institutions have been the bastions for cultural values and higher learning. They have become a multi-generation safe haven for self-exploration, history and our unique experiences.

As a society, it is important that we honor the history of HBCU’s to ensure everyone, regardless of color understands the cultural importance of these institutions and their place in the historical narrative of our country.  We also must take into consideration the impact HBCU’s alumni have had on the world – from inventors, politicians, media moguls, and everyday citizens.   

A photo can provide a small window into a story.  Historical archives can provide an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the full story. Getty Images and the entire photography industry have not historically worked from a foundation of inclusion. Getty Images’ pictures and videos are everywhere, and we understand our role in amplifying the Black experience through our content, especially to shine a spotlight on authentic depictions of history and culture. The inaugural Photo Archive Grant for HBCUs created by from Getty Images, The Getty Family and Stand Together is our first step towards realizing that change.   

The grant commits $500,000 towards the digitization of two HBCUs photographic archives, including the digitization of up to 200,000 archival images. HBCUs will retain all copyright, and original photos will be returned to the HBCUs after scanning, along with the newly digitized photos. Getty Images will represent the digitized photos, making this content available for educational and non-commercial uses, providing a new revenue source for the HBCU Grant recipients.

We have built a program to not only honor the legacy and history of HBCUs and their contribution to American History but to support our students’ futures. We see this as just the beginning of our long-term investment in historical representation of the Black Community.

Additionally, the revenue generated from the Grant will be funneled directly back to HBCUs and used to fund a new scholarship for HBCU students. These scholarships will be launched in 2022.

For Getty Images to move the world, we must ensure that all content creators, their work, and their stories can be preserved. We haven’t always got this right, but we are committed to making content accessible and ensuring a more authentic representation of history. We believe these programs will honor the legacy and history of HBCUs and their contribution to American History, in addition to supporting students’ futures.

Cassandra Illidge is Vice President of Partnerships at Getty Images