Born John Harold Johnson, January 19, 1918, in Arkansas City, AR; died after a long illness, August 8, 2005, in Chicago, IL. Publisher. John H. Johnson built a media empire based on the immensely successful magazines Ebony and Jet in the years following World War II. Both were aimed at an African-American readership, and Ebony in particular became enormously influential in that community. Its founder would be remembered as "a pioneer in black journalism when a large part of America lived in the shadow of segregation and open racism," noted Rupert Cornwell of London's Independent newspaper.
Born in 1918 in Arkansas City, Arkansas, Johnson was the grandson of slaves. His father was killed in a sawmill accident, and his mother worked as a camp cook for two years to save the money for a train ticket north for them, because there was no high school for black students in Arkansas City. Johnson's stepfather joined them in Chicago, and Johnson enrolled at DuSable High School, an all-black high school known for its rigorous academic program. He was elected class president and edited the school newspaper before he graduated in 1936.
That same year, Johnson was invited to speak before the Urban League, an early civil-rights organization. The president of an insurance company that served the black community was in the audience and, impressed, offered Johnson a job and tuition for college. He took courses at the University of Chicago, and began working at Supreme Liberty Life Insurance as an editor of its company magazine, which required him to sift through black newspapers and journals to find story ideas. He never earned his college degree, but after a few years came up with the idea for a new magazine based on Reader's Digest, which reprinted articles in condensed form from other publications. Unable to secure a business loan, he borrowed $500 by using his mother's household furniture as collateral. He sent out a subscription offer to Supreme Life policyholders, and when 3,000 signed up, Negro Digest was born. The first issue came out in November of 1942, and soon boasted a circulation of 50,000.
Johnson was by then married, and it was his wife, Eunice, who suggested the title for his next magazine project, which would be based on Life, another widely read publication of the day and renowned for its photojournalism. He later said his goal was to "show not only the Negroes but also white people that Negroes got married, had beauty contests, gave parties, ran successful businesses, and did all the other normal things of life," New York Times writer Douglas Martin quoted him as saying. The name of the new magazine was Ebony, and the 25,000 copies printed for its premier issue in November of 1945 sold out entirely.
Johnson's magazines relied heavily on his sales skills those first years to land the advertising accounts that brought in revenue. He was determined to win business from major American companies, not just those aimed at black consumers, and his persistence revolutionized magazine publishing. The first company he convinced was Zenith, a radio manufacturer, and others quickly followed suit. Johnson "virtually invented the black consumer market," the later executive editor of Ebony, Lerone Bennett Jr., told Chicago Tribune reporters Charles Storch and Barbara Sherlock. "He was the first publisher I know of who went to Madison Avenue and persuaded them that they had to address the African-American market and use African-American markets."
In 1951, Johnson launched Jet, which covered the achievements of blacks in entertainment, politics, and sports. It, too, became enormously successful, and with Ebony was a staple in nearly every middle-class African-American household for a generation and more. As the civil rights era gathered steam, Johnson's magazines profiled the movement's leaders, covered important events, and delivered strong opinions in both its editorials and feature articles about race relations in America.
Johnson's success as an entrepreneur and visionary kept pace with the gains made by his community over the years. In 1971, he became the first black person to own a building on Chicago's famed Michigan Avenue when he moved his Johnson Publishing headquarters there. Two years later, the company launched Fashion Fair Cosmetics, a line of makeup in shades flattering to darker skin. His wife, mother, and daughter all held executive positions, but his twenty-five-year-old son John Harold Johnson Jr. died of sickle cell anemia in 1981. A year later, Johnson became the first African American to appear on Forbes' annual rankings of the 400 wealthiest Americans.
The recipient of numerous honors, including the 1972 Publisher of the Year award from the Magazine Publishers Association and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996 from President Bill Clinton, Johnson also earned the illustrious Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and gave generously to Howard University's school of journalism. He died after a long illness on August 8, 2005, in Chicago, Illinois, at the age of 87. Survivors include his wife of 64 years, Eunice Walker Johnson, and daughter Linda Johnson Rice, president of Johnson Publishing. Ebony continued to remain in the No. 1 spot among African-American-aimed magazines, with a circulation of 1.6 million in 2004. Sources: Chicago Tribune, August 8, 2005; Independent (London), August 11, 2005, p. 33; Jet, August 22, 2005, p. 6; New York Times, August 9, 2005, p. C22.
— Carol Brennan