John H. Johnson Biography
A Drive to Succeed, Founded Negro Digest and Ebony, Became Publishing Giant, Selected writings
Publisher, entrepreneur, writer
John H. Johnson was without question the most important force in African-American publishing in the twentieth century and has been credited with almost single-handedly opening the commercial magazine marketplace to people of color. Beginning with a five-hundred-dollar loan, he created a multi-million dollar business empire and became one of the richest men in the United States in the process. For decades he entertained and educated the public with Ebony and Jet, the magazines that form the basis of the Johnson Publishing empire.
A Drive to Succeed
Johnson was born into poverty on January 19, 1918, in rural Arkansas City, Arkansas, where he attended the community's overcrowded, segregated elementary school. In the early 1930s, his hometown did not have a public high school for blacks, but Johnson's love of learning was so great that after graduating from the eighth grade he returned for another year rather than discontinue his education altogether. The following year he and his mother went to Chicago to see the World's Fair. Deciding that the North held better opportunities for them, they stayed in the city. At DuSable High School on Chicago's South Side, Johnson endured taunts from his classmates because of his ragged clothes and countrified ways, but their teasing only increased his determination to make something of himself. He excelled academically, becoming an honor student, a member of the debating team, managing editor of the school newspaper, business manager of the yearbook, and student council president.
Because of his achievements, Johnson was invited in 1936 to speak at a dinner held by the Urban League. The featured speaker that evening was Harry Pace, the president of the Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company, which at that time was the largest black-owned business in the United States. Pace was so impressed with Johnson's speech that he offered him a job with his company and a scholarship to attend college part-time. Within two years, Johnson had progressed from office clerk to personal assistant to Pace. One of his duties was to read through current publications to find articles concerning issues of interest to the black community. Johnson discussed these articles in weekly meetings with Pace, thus enabling his supervisor to keep abreast of current topics without having to do all the reading himself. Johnson began to wonder if other people in the community might not enjoy the same type of service. He conceived of a publication patterned after Reader's Digest but focused on a black audience.
Once the idea of Negro Digest occurred to him, it began to seem like "a black gold mine," stated Johnson in his autobiography, Succeeding Against the Odds. When he sought financial backing for the project, however, he was unable to find any backers—black or white. From white bank officers to the editor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's (NAACP) nonprofit publication, all agreed that a magazine aimed at a black audience had no chance for commercial success. Johnson decided to bankroll Negro Digest by writing everyone on the Supreme Liberty mailing list and soliciting a two-dollar, prepaid subscription, calculating that even a 15 percent response would give him enough capital to publish the first issue. To obtain the five hundred dollars needed for postage to mail his letters, he had to use his mother's furniture as collateral on a loan.
Founded Negro Digest and Ebony
The letter generated three thousand responses, and the first issue of Negro Digest was published in November of 1942. But there were still obstacles to be overcome. Distributors were unwilling to put the periodical on their newsstands, for they too believed that it would not sell. Johnson persuaded his friends to haunt their neighborhood newsstands, demanding copies of Negro Digest. When a few vendors began carrying it, Johnson advanced money to his friends so that they could make sure that the first issue was a sellout. Magazine distributor Joseph Levy was impressed and formed an alliance with Johnson. He provided valuable marketing ideas and opened the doors that allowed Negro Digest to hit the newsstands in other urban centers. Within six months, circulation had reached 50,000 copies per month. One of the most popular features in the magazine was entitled "If I Were a Negro." With it, Johnson capitalized on the unsolicited advice his race constantly received, by asking prominent citizens of other races to offer solutions to black problems. When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt contributed to "If I Were a Negro," circulation doubled overnight.
With Negro Digest an established success, Johnson turned his thoughts to new ventures. Realizing that he could reach a wider audience with more entertainment-oriented material, he created Ebony, a monthly pictorial patterned after Life magazine. It debuted in November of 1945 and immediately sold out its initial 25,000-copy press run.
Initially, Ebony focused on the very wealthy and famous in the black community. Johnson admitted that few of Ebony 's readers would ever attain the levels of success portrayed in the magazine, but he firmly believed that people from all walks of life enjoyed reading about glamorous lifestyles. He further maintained that Ebony 's success stories served as inspirations to lower-income blacks and provided positive role models. Over the years, Ebony evolved into a somewhat sensational, gossip-oriented magazine, then settled into the middle-of-the-road, family format that characterizes it today. Although periodically attacked by black intellectuals and others for its rather conservative editorial stance and for the quality of its journalism, Ebony is also defended as one of the few publications that consistently allows blacks to see themselves portrayed in a positive light. Ebony 's circulation, which stood at over 1.5 million monthly in the 2000s, testifies to the magazine's popularity among the reading public.
Johnson launched other publications over the years: Jet, a weekly news digest that first appeared in 1951 and is still going strong today; Tan, a "true confessions"-style women's magazine that evolved into a homemakers' journal; Hue, a short-lived companion to Jet that emphasized features rather than hard news; and most recently, Ebony Man, which debuted in 1985. Described by Johnson in a Black Enterprise interview as being "for young black men on the go, young black men who are conscious not only of their grooming and their appearance but who feel secure about their prospects," Ebony Man flourished despite the soft magazine market of the early 1990s.
Became Publishing Giant
One of Johnson's major achievements was breaking through the resistance that white advertisers felt toward promoting their products in publications aimed at minority consumers. Their initial reluctance to do so inadvertently helped to build the Johnson Publishing Company empire. To compensate for slow advertising sales in Ebony 's early days, Johnson created a mail-order company called Beauty Star, which sold wigs, clothing, vitamins, and more, and he then used his magazines to publicize those products. Beauty Star eventually evolved into the Fashion Fair Cosmetics Company, a subsidiary of Johnson Publishing. Today, Johnson Publishing Company also owns Mahogany Travel, WJPC-AM radio in Chicago, considerable real estate, and a 20 percent stake in Essence, a popular black women's magazine. The company also produces the Ebony/Jet Showcase, a syndicated television program of entertainment news, and has published many books on notable black citizens.
In an interview with Black Enterprise, Johnson advised young people to "dream small things, because small things can be achieved, and once you achieve a small dream and make a small success, it gives you confidence to go on to the next step." He elaborated on that philosophy in his autobiography: "Very often when you try to see things in their largest form, you get discouraged, and you feel that it's impossible.… I never thought I would be rich. Never in my wildest dreams did l believe that Negro Digest would lead to the Johnson Publishing Company of today. If I'd dreamed then of the conglomerate of today, I probably would have been so intimidated, with my meager resources, that I wouldn't have had the courage to take the first step."
Johnson's willingness to pursue his business goals at a time when African American businessmen in the United States were few and the barriers numerous, proved to be a true success. In hindsight, his timing was critical to his success. Other African American magazines that were launched shortly after Ebony did not survive; they failed for lack of advertising support. By the late 1990s Johnson's daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, had been well trained to take the reins of the company when her father retired, but Johnson showed few signs of slowing down. In 2002, he named Rice as CEO, but he remained on as president and Chief Operating Officer of a company that had sales of over $400 million and employed over 2,500 people.
By the early 2000s, Johnson was widely celebrated as one of the elder statesman of black business. In early 2001 he was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame. The founder, publisher, chairman and CEO of the largest African-American publishing company in the world advised the audience to, "Convince people it is in their best interest to help you." Johnson also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton, the NAACP's Spingarn Medal, the Horatio Alger Award, and The Wall Street Journal Dow Jones Entrepreneurial Excellence Award. He held the distinction of having been the first African American placed on Forbes' list of 400 wealthiest Americans. He was also awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Harvard University, the University of Southern California, Carnegie Mellon University, Eastern Michigan University, and Wayne State University. In 2003 Howard University named the John H. Johnson School of Communications in his honor and in 2005 the John H. Johnson Delta Cultural and Entrepreneurial Learning Center was created in his home town of Arkansas City.
Asked how he wanted to be remembered, Johnson once said "I want them to say he had an idea and that he believed in it and that he refused to accept failure in pursuit of it," Johnson was quoted in a 2005 tribute in Jet magazine. When Johnson passed away on August 8, 2005, after a long illness, this only scratched the surface of the honors paid to him by the thousands who mourned his passing. In a lavish memorial service attended by politicians, businessmen, and celebrities, ex-President Bill Clinton honored Johnson for having "a vision of keeping hope alive by showing Black people faces of hope," and rising political star Senator Barack Obama of Illinois said: "If we are lucky, most of us expect to lead lives that leave an imprint on those who love us. Only a handful of men and women leave an imprint on the conscience of a nation and on a history that they helped to shape. John Johnson was one of those men." Johnson was survived by his wife, Eunice, by his daughter, Linda, and by the powerful publishing empire that he created.
(With Lerone Bennett, Jr.) Succeeding Against the Odds (autobiography), Warner, 1989.
(With Quinn Currie) Every Wall a Ladder (for children), Storytellers Ink, 1996.
Johnson, John H., and Lerone Bennett, Jr., Succeeding Against the Odds, Warner, 1989.
Black Enterprise, June 1986; June 1987; June 1989; February 1990; September 1991; October 2005.
Chicago Tribune, August 18, 1991.
Ebony, November 1985; June 1989; November 1990; June 1991; August 2005; October 2005 (tribute issue).
Forbes, December 20, 1983; October 21, 1991.
Fortune, October 3, 1983; August 6, 1984; July 31, 1989.
Jet, August 29, 2005.
Los Angeles Times, January 9, 1990; August 10, 2005.
Newsweek, January 16, 1984; August 22, 2005.
New York Post, December 7, 1962.
New York Times, November 19, 1990; August 9, 2005; August 16, 2005.
Printers' Ink, November 5, 1954.
Reporter, November 12, 1959.
Time, December 9, 1985.
"Founder of Ebony, Jet Magazines Dies," CNN, www.cnn.com/2005/US/08/08/johnson.obit/index.html (October 10, 2005).
Johnson Publishing Company, www.johnsonpublishing.com (October 10, 2005).
—Joan Goldsworthy and
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