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Johnson, John H. 1918–

John H. Johnson
1918

Chairman and publisher, Johnson Publishing Company

Nationality: American.

Born: January 18, 1918, in Arkansas City, Arkansas.

Education: Attended University of Chicago, 1936; attended Northwestern University.

Family: Son of Leroy Johnson (sawmill worker and laborer) and Gertrude Johnson Williams (domestic); married Eunice Walker; children: two.

Career: Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company, 1936, began as office assistant, became chairman and CEO, 1974; Johnson Publishing Company, 19422002, CEO; 1942, chairman and publisher.

Awards: NAACP, Spingarn Medal, 1966; named to Forbes list of 400 Richest Americans, 1982; National Press Foundation Award, 1986; No. 1 Black Business Award 1986 and 1987, Black Enterprise ; inducted into Black Press Hall of Fame, 1987; inducted into Illinois Business Hall of Fame, 1989; inducted into Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame, 1990; Distinguished Service Award, Harvard University Graduate School of Business Administration, 1991; Dow Jones Entrepreneurial Excellence Award, Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal, 1993; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1996; Lifetime Achievement Award, American Advertising Federation, 1996; Arkansas Business Hall of Fame, 2001.

Publications: With Lerone Bennett Jr., Succeeding against the Odds, 1989.

Address: Johnson Publishing Company, 820 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60605; http://www.ebony.com.

John H. Johnson overcame the barriers of poverty and racism to develop the leading black-owned publishing and black-owned cosmetics companies in the world. Both Johnson Publishing Company, publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines, and Fashion Fair Cosmetics are privately held, family-owned and family-operated enterprises.

John H. Johnson's creativity, determination, and business savvy as a publisher blazed the trail for other black-oriented magazines such as Black Enterprise, Essence, and Emerge. Johnson opened the eyes of mainstream American businesses to the multibillion-dollar influence of the African American consumer market by breaking down advertising barriers. He also played a key role in launching and promoting the careers of a large number of African American professionals in publishing and advertising.

EARLY LIFE

Johnson came of age in a time of socially accepted lynching and legal segregation in the rural South. His mother, Gertrude, worked as a domestic and cook in rural Arkansas. She sought to earn the means to take her son north to further his education beyond the eighth-grade level. Johnson called this relocation in 1933 to Chicago's South Parkway, a mecca for black business and culture, a crucial turning point in his life. In high school Johnson took journalism courses and was the editor of the school newspaper.

Despite her best efforts, Gertrude Johnson and her son were dependent on welfare for two years. These humble beginnings, along with his mother's faith and hope and his exposure to the vast possibilities of black business, social, and political life guided Johnson's drive to succeed. In September 1936 Johnson met with Harry H. Pace, chief executive officer (CEO) and president of Supreme Life Insurance Company. Pace gave him an entry-level, part-time office position while he attended the University of Chicago part-time. Johnson dropped out of school, preferring the on-the-job education and curriculum provided by Supreme Life, where he learned the value of entrepreneurship and the importance of private enterprise. In 1939 Johnson was promoted to editor of Supreme Life's newsletter, and he began to dabble in local political campaigns. In 1940 Johnson met Eunice Walker, whom he married the next year. Johnson's first publishing endeavor was born in 1942. With permission from Pace, he used the Supreme Life mailing list and a $500 loan to buy the first subscriptions to the Negro Digest, which in turn financed the first issue.

BUSINESS ACHIEVEMENTS

From the beginning Johnson held total ownership of the Negro Digest. Because positive news on black people was scarce in the white-owned and white-oriented media, Negro Digest gathered news from many sources in digest form and also published original articles. Blacks could now see news of themselves in society, sports, politics, business, education, and other aspects of life, rather than just the criminal context found in white publications. Johnson established an informal, unique, andin the Southunderground system of magazine distribution, whereby he created dealers and salesmen where none existed previously. In the same way Johnson established a generation of photographers, advertisers, marketers, and circulation specialists for the Negro Digest, where none existed previously. His formal and informal staff utilized guerilla tactics, particularly in the South, selling issues on buses, streetcars, and in cotton fields. Eleanor Roosevelt contributed a cover story titled, "If I Were a Negro," in the October 1943 issue, raising circulation from 50,000 to 100,000 almost overnight.

The creation of Ebony in 1945 was a response to the popular pictorial content of Life and Look. Johnson realized that his customer base was not only interested in reading about events; they also wanted to see the events. Ebony portrayed the positive achievements of blacks but also presented harsh realities and difficulties to give a balanced aspect of the total black experience. Ebony 's debut was acknowledged by Time and Newsweek and had an initial press run of 25,000, which sold out within hours. Ebony had a healthy circulation but suffered from a lack of advertising. For this reason, Johnson created Beauty Star cosmetics and other businesses to generate revenue. Relying on his own sales ability and that of William P. Grayson, who left the Afro-American to join Ebony, Johnson finally managed to secure advertising accounts with major corporations. The November 1947 issue featured Lena Horne on the cover and sold 333,445 copies. The sale of Beauty Star hair products made it possible for Johnson to pay $52,000 cash for an office building at a prestigious location in Chicago1820 South Michigan Avenue.

When Look magazine produced the pocket-sized Quick, Johnson created the pocket-sized Jet in 1951. The first issue sold out and became a collector's item. The successes of Ebony and Jet led to Johnson's selection as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of 1951 by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees).

The success of Ebony eroded the circulation of Negro Digest, leading Johnson to make the difficult business decision to discontinue the latter's publication in 1951. He hired additional administrative staff and raided other black publications for journalists and photographers. He faced the unique challenge of developing black advertising specialists, of whom there was a scarcity at the time. He found success by hiring LeRoy Jeffries of the National Urban League as Midwest advertising manager. Johnson Publishing went on to acquire hard-won advertising accounts with Chrysler, General Motors, and Sears Roebuck. With these advertisers, Johnson stressed the importance of using black models to appeal to black consumers, thereby creating a generation of models like Diahann Carroll, who debuted in Ebony at the age of 14, Pam Grier, Jayne Kennedy, and Lola Falana. Johnson Publishing Company opened branch offices in Rockefeller Center in New York City and one-half block from the White House in Washington, D.C., using the time-proven tactic of employing a white representative to negotiate the lease. The mid-1950s ushered in an exciting, politically charged decade of civil-rights protest. Ebony 's coverage of these events cemented its place in American publishing history.

In the late 1950s Johnson traveled with the future president Richard Nixon to Africa and Russia. Later, he met President John F. Kennedy and traveled with Robert Kennedy to the Ivory Coast. As interest in black history grew, Johnson Publishing created a book division. As Ebony took on a greater leadership role, more and more political leaders, including Kennedy's successor Lyndon B. Johnson, turned to Johnson for answers to the racial unrest in America. In 1964 Ebony grossed $5.5 million in advertising revenue. At Ebony' s 20th anniversary in November 1965, the magazine was selling 900,000 copies per month. Coverage of the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Ebony included Pulitzer Prize award-winning photos by Moneta Sleet.

Johnson built the first downtown Chicago building to be exclusively designed and constructed by a black-owned corporation, and it became the new home of Johnson Publishing Company at the end of 1971. Johnson expanded his business and social contacts by sitting on the boards of numerous Fortune 500 companies. His first board membership was with Twentieth Century Fox in 1971, which was followed by Greyhound, Bell and Howell, Zenith, Continental Bank, Dillard's Department Stores, and Chrysler. In 1974 Johnson acquired a majority interest in Supreme Life Insurance Company, his first employer, and later became its chairman and CEO.

Johnson's efforts to diversify expanded the reach of Johnson Publishing Company into television and radio where, though he encountered systematic discrimination, he managed to buy the radio station WGRT, which became WJPC, the first black-owned radio station in Chicago. With careful strategizing and the continued use of white representatives to bypass racial roadblocks, Johnson acquired a suburban FM-radio station and changed the format. Johnson sponsored numerous television shows including the Ebony Music Awards show, the American Black Achievement Awards show, and Ebony/Jet Showcase. The success of the Ebony Fashion Fair, which began in 1958, led to the launch of Fashion Fair Cosmetics, filling the needs of black women as well as darkerskinned white women and Latinas for makeup that complemented their skin colors.

To better appeal to advertising and printing needs, Johnson reduced the physical size of Ebony to a standard magazine size. Forbes added Johnson to its list of 400 richest Americans in 1982. Numerous industry awards from publishing colleagues, journalism societies, and business organizations followed. Howard University, the biggest awarder of baccalaureate degrees in communication to African-Americans, named its school the John H. Johnson School of Communications.

In 2001, as Johnson was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame (joining previous inductees such as Sam Walton of Wal-Mart, Don J. Tyson of Tyson Foods, and William T. Dillard Sr. of Dillard's Department Stores), plans were announced to transfer his birthplace in Arkansas City to the John H. Johnson Cultural and Entrepreneurial Center as a permanent testament to his legacy. In 2002 Johnson kept true to the spirit of family ownership by installing his daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, at the helm of Johnson Publishing Company as president and CEO, while remaining chairman and publisher himself.

As of 2004 the Ebony Fashion Show had attracted an average of 300,000 patrons per year and had raised a total of $49 million for charity, most of which went toward scholarships for 475 students. Despite the proliferation of magazine titles, Jet maintained a readership of over 950,000 and Ebony over 10 million, including over one million subscribers. While often criticized for its feel-good focus on entertainment and lifestyle pieces, Johnson compared Ebony 's content to that of disguising castor oil (that is, more serious issues) in orange juice (or entertainment), making it easier to swallow.

MANAGEMENT AND LEADERSHIP STRATEGIES

Dr. Doyle Z. Williams, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business Administration, described Johnson as a "sterling example of what can be accomplished through vigor, mettle, vision, and persistence" (Ebony, May 2001). Jannette L. Dates, dean of the John H. Johnson School of Communications at Howard University, noted Johnson's "entrepreneurial spirit, his rooted-ness in the black community, his passion for excellence, his business acumen, his love of family, and his love of community" (Ebony, May 2001).

Johnson rationed his time and sized up people and situations to advance his interests. He did not believe in wasting time, emotion, or energy, and he was a hands-on, detailoriented manager. He felt that is was important to review and renew commitments in any relationship, including one's relationship with employees. When making decisions, Johnson noted in his autobiography that he asked two questions: "Will this help me?" and "Will this get me in trouble?" He used lessons gained from past failures and successes to make decisions, and his decision-making was informed by the belief that "the greatest victory is always closest to the greatest danger."

Often asked about the secret to his success and whether others could achieve the same goals, Johnson stated in Succeeding against the Odds that in business and entrepreneurship, what is needed is "an idea for a business that meets a need that cannot be satisfied elsewhere." His business philosophy was based on the idea that "if you can somehow think and dream of success in small steps, every time you make a step, every time you accomplish a small goal, it gives you confidence to go on from there." Johnson's view of himself and his success was relatively modest: "I was lucky, the timing was right, and I worked hard." Much of his wisdom was rooted in the common sense he learned from his mother: "Never burn your bridges behind you. And leave every job and every situation so you can come back, if you want to or need to." With magazines, books, fashion, cosmetics, hair products, radio, and television, Johnson's impact and success in business was measurable by the wealth of his holdings, the numerous journalism professionals he mentored, and the wide-ranging accolades he received.

See also entry on Johnson Publishing Company, Inc. in International Directory of Company Histories.

sources for further information

Henderson, Eric, "Ebony and Jet Forever!" Africana.com, http://www.africana.com/articles/daily/bk20030528ebonyjet.asp.

"Howard University Honors Publishing Pioneer," Ebony 59, no. 2 (December 2003), p.56.

Johnson, John H., and Lerone Bennett Jr., Succeeding Against the Odds: The Inspiring Autobiography of One of America's Wealthiest Entrepreneurs, New York: Warner Books, 1989.

Scott, Matthew S., "Johnson Celebrates 50th,"Black Enterprise 23, no. 4 (November 1992), p. 26.

Lee McQueen

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Johnson, John H.

John H. Johnson

1918-2005

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.

At a Glance …

Born John Harold Johnson on January 19, 1918, in Arkansas City, AR; son of Leroy (a sawmill worker) and Gertrude (a domestic worker; maiden name, Jenkins) Johnson; married wife, Eunice (president of the Fashion Fair Cosmetics Company), 1941; children: John Harold, Jr. (deceased), Linda Johnson Rice. Education: Attended University of Chicago and Northwestern University School of Commerce.

Career:

Publisher and entrepreneur, 1942-2005. Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company, Chicago, IL, office clerk, 1936-38, assistant to the president, beginning 1938, became chairman and chief executive officer; Johnson Publishing Company, Inc., Chicago, founder, editor, publisher, and chief executive officer, 1942-2005. Fashion Fair Cosmetics Company, founder.

Memberships:

Chrysler Corporation, board of directors; Urban League, board of directors; U.S. Chamber of Commerce, board of directors; Junior Achievement, board of directors; Art Institute of Chicago, board of trustees; United Negro College Fund, board of trustees; Tuskegee Institute, board of trustees; Harvard Graduate School of Business, advisory council.

Awards:

Spingarn Medal, 1966; inducted into Chicago Business Hall of Fame, 1983, Publishing Hall of Fame, 1987, and Black Press Hall of Fame, 1987; named Chicagoan of the year, 1984; Jackie Robinson Award, 1985; named "one of the toughest bosses in the U.S." by Fortune magazine, 1985; Black Journalists Lifetime Achievement Award, 1987; named entrepreneur of the decade by Black Enterprise magazine, 1987; recipient of numerous honorary doctoral degrees.

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.

Selected writings

(With Lerone Bennett, Jr.) Succeeding Against the Odds (autobiography), Warner, 1989.

(With Quinn Currie) Every Wall a Ladder (for children), Storytellers Ink, 1996.

Sources

Books

Johnson, John H., and Lerone Bennett, Jr., Succeeding Against the Odds, Warner, 1989.

Periodicals

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.

On-line

"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

Tom Pendergast

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Johnson, John H. 1918–

John H. Johnson 1918

Publisher, entrepreneur, writer

At a Glance

Expanded Publishing Enterprise

Ground-Breaking Business Savvy

Selected writings

Sources

John H. Johnson turned a five hundred dollar loan into a multimillion dollar business empire, becoming one of the richest men in the United States in the process. For decades he has entertained and educated the public with Ebony and Jet, the magazines that are the foundations of his fortune.

Johnsons success is due entirely to his own powerful drive to succeed. He was born into poverty in rural Arkansas City, Arkansas, where he attended the communitys overcrowded, segregated elementary school. In the early 1930s, his hometown did not have a public high school for blacks, but Johnsons 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 Worlds Fair. Deciding that the North held better opportunities for them, they stayed in the city. At DuSable High School on Chicagos 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 Johnsons 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 Readers 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

At a Glance

Born John Harold Johnson, January 19, 1918, in Arkansas City, AR; son of Leroy (a sawmill worker) and Gertrude (a domestic worker; maiden name, Jenkins) Johnson; married wife, Eunice (president of the Fashion Fair Cosmetics Company), 1941; children: John Harold, Jr. (deceased), Linda Johnson Rice. Education: Attended University of Chicago and Northwestern University School of Commerce.

Publisher and entrepreneur; Johnson Publishing Company, Inc., chief executive officer. Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company, Chicago, IL, office clerk, 1936-38, assistant to the president, beginning 1938, became chairman and chief executive officer; founder, editor, and publisher of Negro Digest, 1942; founder of Ebony, 1945, jet, 1951, Ebony Man, 1985, and of Tan and Hue; founder of the Fashion Fair Cosmetics Company. Member of board of directors of the Chrysler Corporation, the Urban League, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Junior Achievement. Member of board of trustees, Art Institute of Chicago, United Negro College Fund, and Tuskegee Institute. Member of advisory council, Harvard Graduate School of Business. Served as U.S. special ambassador to the independence ceremonies of Kenya and the Ivory Coast.

Awards: Spingarn Medal, 1966; inducted into Chicago Business Hall of Fame, 1983, Publishing Hall of Fame, 1987, and Black Press Hall of Fame, 1987; named Chicagoan of the year, 1984; Jackie Robinson Award, 1985; named one of the toughest bosses in the U.S. by Fortune magazine, 1985; Black Journalists Lifetime Achievement Award, 1987; named entrepreneur of the decade by Black Enterprise magazine, 1987; recipient of honorary doctoral degrees.

Addresses: Office Johnson Publishing Company, Inc., 820 South Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60605.

autobiography, Succeeding Against the Odds. When he sought financial backing for the project, however, he was unable to find any backersblack or white. From white bank officers to the editor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (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% 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 mothers furniture as collateral on a loan.

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.

Expanded Publishing Enterprise

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 Ebonys 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 Ebonys 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. Ebonys circulation, which stands at over 1.5 million monthly, testifies to the magazines 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 womens 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.

Ground-Breaking Business Savvy

One of Johnsons 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 Ebonys 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% stake in Essence, a popular black womens 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.

Although he has said that he does not believe in retirement, Johnson is training his daughter, Linda, to take over his company when he can no longer manage it. In an interview with Black Enterprise, he 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 its impossible. I never thought I would be rich. Never in my wildest dreams did I believe that Negro Digest would lead to the Johnson Publishing Company of today. If Id dreamed then of the conglomerate of today, I probably would have been so intimidated, with my meager resources, that I wouldnt have had the courage to take the first step.

Selected writings

(With Lerone Bennett, Jr.) Succeeding Against the Odds (autobiography), Warner, 1989.

Sources

Books

Johnson, John H., and Lerone Bennett, Jr., Succeeding Against the Odds, Warner, 1989.

Periodicals

Black Enterprise, June 1986; June 1987; June 1989; February 1990; September 1991.

Chicago Tribune, August 18, 1991.

Ebony, November 1985; June 1989; November 1990; June 1991.

Forbes, December 20, 1983; October 21, 1991.

Fortune, October 3, 1983; August 6, 1984; July 31, 1989.

Los Angeles Times, January 9, 1990.

Newsweek, January 16, 1984.

New York Post, December 7, 1962.

New York Times, November 19, 1990.

Printers Ink, November 5, 1954.

Reporter, November 12, 1959.

Time, December 9, 1985.

Joan Goldsworthy

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John Harold Johnson

John Harold Johnson

John Harold Johnson (born 1918), an African American entrepreneur, turned a five hundred dollar loan into a multimillion-dollar business empire and became one of the richest men in the United States. He headed the most prosperous and powerful African American publishing company with such titles as Ebony, Jet, Ebony Man, EM, Ebony Jr., as part of his journalistic successes.

John H. Johnson was born in Arkansas City, Arkansas, on January 19, 1918. When he was six years old, his father died, so Johnson was raised by his mother and step-father. He attended an overcrowded and segregated elementary school. Such was his love of learning, he repeated the eighth grade rather than discontinue his education, since there was no public high school for African Americans in his community. After a visit with his mother to the Chicago World's Fair, they decided that opportunities in the North were more plentiful than in the South. Facing poverty on every side in Arkansas during the Great Depression, the family made the move to Chicago, Illinois, in 1933 to try to find work and for Johnson to continue his education. Johnson entered DuSable High School while his mother and step-father scoured the city for jobs during the day. He looked for work after school and during the summer. Their attempts were un-rewarded. His mother was not even able to find any domestic work, the work that was generally available when all else failed. To support themselves the family applied for welfare, which they received for two years until Johnson's stepfather was finally able to obtain a position with the Works Projects Administration (WPA) and Johnson himself secured a job with the National Youth Administration.

Johnson endured much teasing and taunting at his high school for his ragged clothes and country ways. This only fueled his already formidable determination to "make something of himself." Johnson's high school career was distinguished by the leadership qualities he demonstrated as student council president and as editor of the school newspaper and class yearbook. After he graduated in 1936, he was offered a tuition scholarship to the University of Chicago, but he thought he would have to decline it, because he could not figure out a way to pay for expenses other than tuition. Because of his achievements in high school, Johnson was invited to speak at dinner held by the Urban League. When the president of the Supreme Life Insurance Company, Harry Pace, heard Johnson's speech, he was so impressed with the young man that he offered Johnson a job so that he would be able to use the scholarship,

Johnson began as an office boy at Supreme Life and within two years had become Pace's assistant. His duties included preparing a monthly digest of newspaper articles. 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. His work at Supreme also gave him the opportunity to see the day-today operations of an African American-owned business and fostered his dream of starting a business of his own.

Once the idea of Negro Digest occurred to him, it began to seem like a "black gold mine," Johnson stated in his autobiography Succeeding against the Odds. Johnson remained enthusiastic even though he was discouraged on all sides from doing so. Only his mother, a woman with biblical faith and deep religious convictions, as well as a powerful belief in her son, supported his vision and allowed him to use her furniture as collateral for a $500 loan. He used this loan to publish the first edition of Negro Digestin 1942.

Johnson had a problem with distribution until he teamed up with Joseph Levy a magazine distributor who was impressed with him. Levy provided valuable marketing tips and opened the doors that allowed the new digest to reach newsstands in other urban centers. Within six months circulation had reached 50,000. This publication covered African American history, literature, arts, and cultural issues. After several decades of publication its name was changed to Black World.

Although that publication achieved some success and at its height had a circulation of more than 100,000, it could not be compared with Johnson's subsequent publication, Ebony magazine, which was so popular that its initial run of 25,000 copies easily sold out. The articles in Ebony, which were designed to look like those in LIFE or Look magazines, emphasized the achievements of successful African American. Photo essays about current events and articles about race relations were also included in the magazine. Initially focused on the rich and famous in the African American community, Johnson expanded the reporting to include issues such as "the white problem in America," African American militancy, crimes by African Americans against African Americans, civil rights legislation, freedom rides and marches, and other aspects of segregation and discrimination. Trained historians were recruited for the magazine's staff so that the contributions of African American Americans to the history of the United States could be adequately documented. African American models were used in the magazine's advertisements and a conscious effort was made to portray positive aspects of African American life and culture. Everything in the magazine was addressed to the African American consumer. Johnson maintained that Ebony's success was due to the positive image of African Americans that it offered.

In 1950, Johnson launched Tan magazine -a true confessions type magazine and in 1951, Jet -a weekly news digest. Later publications included African American Stars and Ebony Jr.—a children's magazine. Although all of the magazines achieved a measure of success, none was able to compete with Ebony, which in its 40th year of publication had a circulation of 2,300,000 and was the primary reason that Johnson was considered one of the 400 richest individuals in the United States. In 1972, he was named publisher of the year by the major magazine publishers in the United States.

Johnson expanded his business interests to areas other than his magazines. He became chairperson and chief executive officer of the Supreme Life Insurance Company, where he had begun as part-time office boy. He developed a line of cosmetics, purchased three radio stations, and started a book publishing company, and a television production company. He served on the board of directors of several major businesses, such as the Greyhound Corporation, and received numerous honors and awards for his achievements, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Spingarn Medal in 1966 for his contributions in the area of race relations.

In 1993, Johnson published his autobiography wherein he states "if it could happen to a Black boy from Arkansas it could happen to anyone" This publication celebrated the 50th anniversary of his publishing company.

In 1995, Johnson received the Communication Award for Communication on the occasion of Ebony magazine's 50th anniversary. Alfred C. Sykes, the chairman of the Center for Communication and president of Hearst Media Technology said "Mr. Johnson is a role model for many young people today, an example of how hard work, commitment and belief in oneself can lead to outstanding achievement. He rose from disadvantaged circumstances to achieve success in both business and national service during a time when great obstacles were placed in his path."

Because of his influential position in the African American community, Johnson was invited by the U.S. government to participate in several international missions. In 1959, he accompanied the vice president of the United States on a mission to Russia and Poland. He was appointed special ambassador to represent the United States at the independence ceremonies in the Ivory Coast in 1961 and in Kenya in 1963. Over the years Johnson had devoted a portion of several issues of Ebony to articles relating to African independence movements, but in August 1976 he dedicated an entire special issue to the subject "Africa, the Continent of the Future."

In 1996, President Bill Clinton bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Johnson and in 1997 Johnson was inducted into the Junior Achievement National Business Hall of Fame.

Further Reading

Johnson's autobiography Succeeding Against the Odds was published in 1989; biographical materials also appear in all of his publications Ebony, Jet, Black World,; other articles have appeared in Black Enterprise, Chicago Tribune, Forbes, Fortune. Newsweek, LA Times, New York Post, Time, Printer's Ink, and Ebony Negro Almanac (1976); some information about him is available in The Shaping of African American America (1975) by Lerone Bennett, Jr.; and in African American Capitalism, Strategy for Business in the Ghetto (1969) by Theodore L. Cross. □

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Johnson, John Harold

John Harold Johnson, 1918–2005, African-American magazine publisher, b. Arkansas City, Ark. The son of a mill worker, he began his career editing a Chicago insurance company magazine. In 1942 he started Negro Digest, a periodical modeled on Reader's Digest. Encouraged by its success, he founded (1945) Ebony, a large-format magazine covering the life of America's black community, and saw it grow from an initial circulation of 25,000 to 1.6 million in 2004. Johnson, who also published Jet (est. 1951) and other magazines and owned a cosmetics line, was one of the nation's richest and most powerful black business executives.

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