Johnson, John H. 1918–2005

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Johnson, John H. 1918–2005

(John Harold Johnson)

OBITUARY NOTICE—See index for CA sketch: Born January 19, 1918, in Arkansas City, AR; died of heart failure, August 8, 2005, in Chicago, IL. Publisher, businessperson, and author. Johnson was the founder of Johnson Publishing, which produced the magazines Jet and Ebony, the first such publications aimed at the African-American market. Coming from humble beginnings, he got his start as a high school graduate at the insurance company Supreme Life, a black-owned business in Chicago. One of his jobs there was to collect magazine and newspaper clippings. This inspired his idea to begin a African-American version of Reader's Digest that he called Negro Digest and, later, Black World. Through creative marketing, persistence, and the help of friends and family, he managed to boost circulation up to fifty thousand subscribers. The publication eventually folded in 1976. By then, however, Johnson was already succeeding with other magazines. After attending the University of Chicago and Northwestern University in the late 1930s, he founded Johnson Publishing in 1942. He started the publication of Ebony three years later. The idea of creating a mainstream, middle-class, African-American-oriented publication was highly original, and Johnson found an eager audience. He then added Jet to his publications list in 1951, and by 2004 their combined circulations totaled more than 2.5 million. He also started a magazine for young readers, Ebony, Jr. Johnson added other business interests to his company over the years, including Fashion Fair Cosmetics, which was established in 1973, and for a time he owned several radio stations as well. Ebony and Jet typically focused on delivering positive messages about the black community, though controversial issues were also addressed, especially during the civil rights movement. As the magazines moved into the mainstream, however, they were sometimes criticized for avoiding controversy. Nonetheless, Johnson remained firm in his efforts to include mostly upbeat stories in the periodicals. In 2002 he turned over the chief executive officer position to his daughter, Linda, but remained publisher and chair of the company until his death. Johnson wrote about his life story in Succeeding against the Odds (1989) and was also the coauthor of a children's book titled Every Wall a Ladder (1996). For his many contributions to society, business, and journalism, Johnson received numerous honors over his lifetime, including the Columbia Journalism Award and induction into the Black Press Hall of Fame; in 1996 he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom.



Johnson, John H., and Lerone Bennett, Jr., Succeeding against the Odds, Warner Books (New York, NY), 1989.


Chicago Tribune, August 9, 2005, section 1, pp. 1, 12.

Los Angeles Times, August 9, 2005, p. B10.

New York Times, August 9, 2005, p. C22.

Times (London, England), August 15, 2005, p. 44.

Washington Post, August 9, 2005, pp. A1, A4.

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Johnson, John H. 1918–2005

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