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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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Johnson, John H.

Johnson, John H.

(1918-)
Johnson Communications;
Johnson Publishing
Company Inc.

Overview

From extremely poor beginnings, which included living on welfare as a child, John H. Johnson started a publishing business and turned a $500 loan into a $300 million success. Johnson, who publishes Ebony and Jet, is one of the 400 richest men in America.

Personal Life

John Harold Johnson was born in 1918 into poverty. He spent the early part of his life in a tin roof house near the levees in Arkansas City, Arkansas. When he was six, his father was killed in a mill accident. Johnson recalled in Current Biography that he probably had an unhappy childhood, but did not know any different because he had nothing to compare it to. Educational opportunities for African Americans were limited in Arkansas, and because of segregation there were no local schools that Johnson could attend after the eighth grade. He loved learning so much that he chose to repeat that grade, rather than going without school.

Convinced that the North offered better economic and educational opportunities, the Johnson family moved to Chicago in 1933 in the midst of the Depression. Johnson was able to continue on to high school, but his mother and stepfather were unable to secure employment and the family was forced to go on welfare for two years. Johnson's stepfather then landed a job with the Work Projects Administration and Johnson also secured employment with the National Youth Administration. He later graduated from DuSable High School in Chicago.

Though Johnson endured teasing in high school for his country mannerisms, it only made him more determined to succeed. He showed leadership abilities early on, making the honor roll and serving as student council president and yearbook editor. His work with the yearbook and the school paper inspired him to pursue journalism as a career.

Prior to graduation, Johnson was invited to speak at a Chicago Urban League function for African American high school seniors with notable academic records. It was there that the African American businessman Harry Pace, president of Liberty Insurance, took notice of Johnson, offering him a scholarship and a job, which allowed Johnson to attend college. Johnson began work for Pace's company, attending school at night and rising quickly in the organization.

Johnson married Eunice Johnson in 1941. They later adopted two children. Peers described Johnson in a number of ways. Interviewers found him easy to talk to and cheerful and eager as a young boy. One employee recalled that Johnson seemed open but was essentially unreachable. But another former employee credited working for Johnson as a valuable educational experience that she, as an African American, could not have gotten anywhere else.

Johnson won a number of awards and served in a number of positions in the civic and business communities. He was the vice president of the National Urban League, the national vice chairman of the United Negro College Fund, and served on the boards of various businesses, including Greyhound. He won a number of awards for his contributions to the African American community and was tapped for his talent on several international missions in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He represented the United States of America at independence ceremonies in Africa during the 1960s. He also served on the advisory board of Harvard Business School. The African-American community showed their appreciation in 1994 of Johnson's efforts by inducting him into the first Arkansas Black Hall of Fame. The induction took place in a ceremony which raised funds at $100 a plate for scholarships that would benefit Arkansas high school seniors who had hopes of becoming entrepreneurs.

Johnson's achievements were widely recognized by industry peers. He was awarded the 1994 Communications Award from the Center for Communications. The award recognized Johnson for his success in giving African Americans a voice and inspiring African American youth. Alfred Sikes, chairman for the Center for Communications, recognized that Johnson "rose from disadvantaged circumstances to achieve success both in business and national service during a time when great obstacles were placed in his path."

In 1996 President Clinton awarded Johnson and 10 other recipients, including African American civil rights activist Rosa Parks, the Medal of Freedom Award. Clinton praised Johnson for giving African Americans a voice through his publications. Clinton called Johnson a "humble man" who "continues to inspire young African Americans to succeed against the odds and to take advantage of their opportunities."

Johnson was recognized for his contribution to the business community in 1997. He was inducted into the Junior Achievement National Business Hall of Fame, an honor which recognized business leaders for their success and ability to inspire. Fellow inductees included Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel, and John F. Welch Jr., CEO of General Electric.

Chronology: John H. Johnson

1918: Born.

1941: Married Eunice Johnson.

1942: Started Johnson Publishing Company.

1945: Ebony first published.

1966: Started Johnson Communications.

1993: Published autobiography.

1994: Awarded Center for Communication's 1994 Communications Award.

1994: Inducted into Arkansas' Black Hall of Fame.

1996: Awarded Medal of Freedom Award with Rosa Parks and nine other recipients.

1997: Inducted into Junior Achievement national Business Hall of Fame.

Career Details

When Johnson was hired by Harry Pace to work for Liberty Life Insurance, he got to see first hand the day-today operations of an African American owned business. Johnson began to think about running a business of his own. He was quickly promoted at the insurance company and within two years had risen to the position of assistant to Pace. But Johnson wanted to publish a magazine for African Americans similar to Readers Digest . With a $500 loan obtained using his mother's furniture as collateral, Johnson published the first issues of Negro Digest in 1942. The name was later changed to Black World.

Within six months, the new magazine had a circulation of 50,000. It covered African American contemporary issues as well as history and the arts and gave aspiring African American writers the chance to contribute and be published. Johnson continued to produce new magazines, even though the business community was largely segregated and dominated by whites. Coming from a background with a number of barriers, Johnson's success may have been fueled by his belief that "the only failure is failing to try."

To gather experience about publishing, he talked to everyone in the business that would share information, including some highly successful publishers like Henry Luce. In his autobiography he recalled how he had managed to get past Luce's secretary to set up a meeting with Luce. "I told his secretary that I was president of my company." He went on to explain that the president of America would meet with the smallest country in the world, so it was only natural that the president of a large publishing company would talk to Johnson, the owner of a small company. Johnson also stressed that he did not want a job and was not soliciting donations. It worked.

The magazine that would ultimately become the backbone of Johnson Publishing, Ebony, was first published in 1945. Johnson had a vision of publishing a periodical that would "continue the struggle for excellence and a proper appreciation of the beauty, genius, and unlimited possibility of African Americans," he has said. Johnson wanted to do away with negative racial stereotypes and provide the African American community with positive images. Initially, the magazine focused on glamour but later went on to emphasize achievements in the African American community. Ebony, whose name was coined by Johnson's wife, Eunice, was well received and easily sold out of its initial press run of 25,000 copies. Designed to look like an African American Life, the magazine emphasized African American successes and portrayed history that present-day African Americans could take pride in. Ebony was active in covering the civil rights movement of the 1960s and Johnson's staff sometimes took incredible risks to report on stories that portrayed the struggle. The magazine covered the famous Dr. Martin Luther King "I have a dream..." speech, and later documented his funeral after he was assassinated. Ebony also covered major African-American personalities.

Ebony was at times criticized by African American militants for what they termed its soft stance on civil rights issues and the slant that it took to avoid alienating its up-and-coming African American readers. The integrity of the research in the periodical was also questioned. But African American psychologist Kenneth B. Clark pointed out that, "It is almost impossible to measure the morale lifting value of such a magazine. The mere fact of its existence and success has been an inspiration to African American masses."

In 1950, Johnson Publishing produced Tan, a magazine for African-American women. In 1951 Jet debuted, a weekly news source. These were followed by Ebony Junior for children and African American Stars. None of these, however, came close to matching the success of Ebony.

Johnson made changes in the magazine's production that reflected the influence of the times. Staffers replaced typewriters with computers. In 1971, the entire staff of Johnson Publishing moved to the Loop business district in Chicago, previously an area occupied only by White-owned businesses. By 1995 the magazine had a circulation of 2,000,000 and readership of more than 11.7 million per issue.

In 1993, Johnson published his autobiography, Succeeding Against the Odds: The Autobiography of a Great American Businessman. In it he told of his rise from welfare recipient to one of the 400 richest Americans.

Johnson's company eventually grew into a $300 million operation which included publications (Ebony, Jet, and EM magazines), as well as a number of cosmetic lines, hair products, radio stations, a travel agency, and a traveling fashion show.

Social and Economic Impact

African American businesses in America face challenges that other, non-African American business owners do not have to face. African American business leaders, such as Johnson, were pioneers that started businesses when segregation and other racial barriers were nearly insurmountable. Even as recently as 1994, African American businesses prepared for the impact of a conservative legislature on Affirmative Action policy. Businesses, which made up the Black Enterprise 100, the 100 largest African American businesses in America, worried that the largely Republican legislature would reverse years of progress in Affirmative Action policies. However, African American companies were also positively impacted by societal changes such as the economic upswing. In 1993, for example, all businesses listed on the BE 100, on which Johnson's company ranked second, saw total employment increase by 20 percent, due to the economic recovery.

Johnson's career was notable in that he was one of the first African American executives, and therefore, a pioneer. According to Benjamin Ruffin, chair of the Business Policy Review Council, a group which represented African American executives of Fortune 500 companies, "African Americans who helped break down color barriers and were early pioneers in corporate America have most often remained as unsung heroes and heroines." The Council honored Johnson as one of these pioneers, with an award in 1996. As an African American businessman, Johnson impacted not only the publishing community, but branched into other industries including Fashion Fair Cosmetics, Ebony Cosmetics, Supreme Beauty Products, radio stations in Chicago and Louisville, Kentucky, and television programming.

Johnson's willingness to pursue his business goals at a time when African American businessmen in the United States were few and the barriers to their success were numerous, proved to be a profitable venture. 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. In 1997 Johnson Publishing had sales of $326 million and employed 2,662 people. By 1995 Johnson's daughter, who helped contribute to the company's growth, was installed as CEO of Johnson Publishing and was, according to news accounts, positioned to take over the company when her father retired. Johnson's radio broadcasting company, Johnson Communications, had estimated sales in 1997 of $1,600,000 and employed 35 people.

Sources of Information

Contact at: Johnson Communications; Johnson Publishing
Company Inc.
820 South Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL 60605
Business Phone: (312)322-9225
URL: http://www.ebonymag.com/jpcindrex.html

Bibliography

"Arkansas' First Black Hall of Fame Names Six Renowned Achieves as First Inductees." Jet, 10 January 1994.

Connors, Cathy. "Black Magazines are a Big Business." New York Amsterdam News, 6 January 1996.

DePaulo, Lisa. "Meet the World's Richest Heiresses!" Redbook, 1 August 1995.

"The Ebony Story." Ebony, November 1995.

Edmond Jr., Alfred. "Evolution Not Revolution." Black Enterprise, 30 June 1995.

Egyir, William. "Five Business Pioneers to Receive Honors." New York Amsterdam News, 27 January 1996.

Hoxha and Kieregaard, eds. Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.

"Jet and Ebony Founder, Chairman and CEO John H. Johnson and Civil Rights Pioneer Rosa Parks Receive Medal of Freedom Award." Jet, 23 September 1996.

"John H. Johnson Among Six Inducted into This Year's Junior Achievement National Business Hall of Fame." Jet, 19 May 1997.

"John H. Johnson Receives Communication Award During Gala in New York." Jet, 27 March 1995.

Johnson, John H. "Founder's Statement." Ebony, November 1995.

Mangelsdorf, Martha E. "Succeeding Against the Odds: The Autobiography of a Great American Business." Inc., October 1993.

"Million Dollar Database." Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. Dun & Bradstreet, 1997. Available from http://www.dnbmdd.com/netbrs/pgate...rangelo=1&x_rangehi=14&x_scope=tag.

Mortise, Charles, ed. Current Biography Yearbook 1968. New York: HAW. Wilson Company, 1968.

"Succeeding Against the Odds, John H. Johnson Autobiography, Now Available in Paperback." Jet, 15 March 1993.

The Writers Directory. Detroit: St. James Press, 1996.

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Johnson, John H.

John H. Johnson

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.

CarolBrennan

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Johnson, John Harold

Johnson, John Harold

(b. 19 January 1918 in Arkansas City, Arkansas; d. 8 August 2005 in Chicago, Illinois), influential publisher, business executive, and media giant who was a pioneer among African-American entrepreneurs.

Johnson, who was christened “Johnny” after one of his mother’s friends, was born in the rural town of Arkansas City, Arkansas. His mother, Gertrude Jenkins, was a cook. After her first marriage, to Richard Lewis, failed, she married Johnson’s father, Leroy Johnson, who was killed in a sawmill accident when his son was eight. Johnson’s mother then married James Williams, a grocery delivery-man, in 1927, when Johnson was nine.

Johnson graduated from elementary school in 1932. As no black public high school existed in Arkansas City and the family could not afford to send Johnson to boarding school in Pine Bluff or Little Rock, his mother decided to take him to Chicago. By the end of the summer, however, the family did not have enough money for the move, so Johnson repeated the eighth grade, as his mother wished to keep him out of trouble. A year later Johnson and his mother, as part of the Great Black Migration from the South to the North, finally moved to Chicago. They initially left Johnson’s stepfather behind, as planned, and joined Johnson’s half sister Beulah, who had recently moved to Chicago as well. At the height of the Great Depression, Williams could not find work, and Johnson’s mother and half sister lost their own jobs, forcing the family to live on relief for almost two years until Johnson’s stepfather, who had eventually joined them, found work. Johnson himself also found work with a division of the National Youth Administration headed by Mary McLeod Bethune.

Johnson first attended Wendell Phillips High School, where he became president of the student council and of his junior and senior classes. He also served as editor of the school newspaper and as managing editor of the yearbook, which experiences confirmed that a career in journalism, not law, was what he wanted to pursue in life. He also developed a love for history and literature as well as for books on self-improvement, from which he developed “faith, self-confidence, and a positive mental attitude,” which, in his autobiography, he held to be the tenets for success in his life. After Wendell Phillips was damaged by fire, Johnson completed high school at DuSable High School, graduating in 1936. Classmates of Johnson’s who would become famous included the singer Nat King Cole, the jazz pianist Dorothy Donegan, the comedian Redd Foxx, and the author and businessman Dempsey Travis.

Johnson’s stellar high-school record earned him an invitation to speak at the 1936 annual banquet sponsored by the National Urban League to honor outstanding African-American high-school seniors. His speech impressed Harry H. Pace, the president of Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Co., who then offered him a part-time job. While working, Johnson was able to accept a scholarship to attend the University of Chicago as a part-time student. Also that year, as persuaded by his white civics teacher, Johnson changed his name from Johnny to John and randomly selected Harold as his middle name. He left the University of Chicago after two years to work full-time at Supreme Liberty, taking night classes at Northwestern University from 1938 to 1940. In 1940 Johnson met Eunice Walker at a dance; they were married on 21 June 1941. They would later adopt two children.

The eighteen-year-old Johnson began his job at Supreme Liberty on 1 September 1936 knowing more about Pace than Pace knew about him; he would adhere to the strategy of entering business situations with as much awareness as possible in building his enterprises. Indeed, Johnson was so impressed by the success of the executives at Supreme Liberty that he took every opportunity available to learn from them. He later noted that, in particular, he learned how to assess situations so as to determine before entering them whether they would advance his interests. He also discovered that “if you want to succeed in business, you have to learn how to work with people that you don’t like.” At Supreme Liberty, Johnson served as assistant editor of the company’s newspaper before becoming editor in 1939; in this position, one of his assignments was to read magazines and newspapers to compile a digest of African-American activities for Pace.

This news-culling experience planted the seed for the birth of the monthly journal Negro Digest. Although Roy Wilkins, the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), tried to persuade him to delay pursuing this venture, Johnson felt that the time was right to begin publication. The editorial explaining Johnson’s purpose in starting the magazine stated: “Negro Digest is published in response to a demand for a magazine to summarize and condense the leading articles and comment on the Negro now current in the press of the nation in ever increasing volume.” Although it was called a digest, the magazine consisted of complete articles. Johnson hoped to raise the money needed to publish the periodical’s first issue by mailing letters to 20,000 people insured by Supreme Liberty, offering subscriptions for only $2. However, he needed $500 to purchase stamps to mail the letters. Unable to secure funding from a bank, Johnson persuaded his mother to let him use her new furniture to secure a loan. The first issue was published in November 1942.

In July 1943, with only one other employee assisting him, Johnson took a leave of absence from Supreme Liberty to concentrate on making Negro Digest successful. When circulation came to a standstill at 50,000, Johnson acted quickly to boost sales by persuading the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, to write an article for his regular feature “If I Were a Negro,” which helped to double the magazine’s circulation. Building on the success of Negro Digest, Johnson launched his second publishing venture, Ebony, in November 1945. Johnson stated that Ebony, a general interest magazine, was designed “to give Blacks a new sense of somebody-ness, a new sense of self-respect.... Blacks needed positive images to fulfill their potentialities.” The first issue sold 50,000 copies. Also in 1945 Johnson’s Negro Digest Publishing Co. produced its first book, The Best of Negro Humor, which was edited by Johnson. In 1949 the company’s name was changed to Johnson Publishing Co. Johnson proved successful in these two ventures largely because he marketed a product that met the needs of a group of people whose needs were not being satisfied elsewhere; such an accomplishment, according to Johnson, was the secret to success in any business.

The 1950s were especially eventful for Johnson. Although the publication of Negro Digest was suspended in 1951, because the vast circulation of Ebony caused the Digest’s circulation to drop to the point that it caused a financial loss, other publications filled similar niches, including Tan Confessions, which was renamed first Tan and then Black Stars (1950–1971); Copper Romance and Hue, both of which were short lived; and, starting in November 1951, Jet, a weekly newsmagazine designed to provide coverage of African Americans in entertainment, politics, sports, and society. Johnson was named one of Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Year by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce in 1951. The citation read, in part: “Through these publications, he has made available for the first time a current history of the Negro people in America.” The first Ebony Fashion Fair was held in ten American cities in 1958, and Johnson accompanied Vice President Richard M. Nixon on a goodwill tour to nine African counties in 1957 and to Russia and Poland in 1959.

Johnson described the 1960s as the most exciting years of his life. He was then editor and publisher of the largest magazine targeting a black audience in America. In 1961 Negro Digest resumed publication, and Johnson Publishing’s book division, suspended in 1945, was revived. Ebony remained popular, and Johnson became more of a participant in the political arena. He was invited to attend the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, and he was appointed as special U.S. ambassador to the independence ceremonies of the Ivory Coast, in 1961, by President Kennedy and of Kenya, in 1965, by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1966 he was appointed to the National Advisory Commission on Selective Service. Johnson was also a major contributor, through both finances and media coverage, to the civil rights movement.

Negro Digest was renamed Black World in 1970, but publication ceased in 1976 because circulation dropped from 100,000 to 15,000 as interest in the civil rights movement waned. President Nixon appointed Johnson to the President’s Commission for the Observance of the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the United Nations, which organization had been formed in 1945. In 1971 Johnson became the first African American to construct a major building in Chicago’s Loop, namely, the headquarters of Johnson Publishing. In 1973 he created Fashion Fair Cosmetics, which came to be marketed in 2,500 stores in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. Also during this period, he bought the radio station WGRT and created WJPC, Chicago’s first black-owned radio station, and he began publishing Ebony Jr. for African American preteens.

Johnson was appointed to serve on the boards of directors of several major corporations during the 1970s, including Twentieth Century–Fox, Chrysler, and Conrail, and he was named the chairman of the board of Supreme Liberty Life Insurance, the company where he got his start. In 1975 he entered television with the JPC-TV production of The Ebony Music Awards, and in 1978 his second JPC-TV production, The American Black Achievement Awards, became the first American television program to honor black achievement in the arts, business, public service, religion, athletics, and entertainment.

Milestones in the 1980s included Johnson’s becoming the first African American to be included on Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. In 1982 Johnson began a weekly black celebrity interview show, The Ebony/Jet Showcase, hosted by Tom Joyner. In 1985 the publication Ebony Man was launched. At about this time, Johnson returned to Arkansas City for the first time since he had left in 1933. His autobiography, Succeeding Against the Odds, written with Lerone Bennett, Jr., was published in 1989. At the age of eighty-two, when the 1990s began, Johnson was still looking to start new business ventures. In 1995 he entered international publishing with Ebony South Africa, which was discontinued in 2000. In 2002 Johnson named his daughter as president and chief executive officer of Johnson Publishing Co., while he remained chairman and publisher.

Johnson received numerous honors and awards throughout his life. In 1966 he received the Spingarn Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the NAACP, and the Horatio Alger Award, presented to outstanding Americans for “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps” in the national tradition. He was named Publisher of the Year by the Magazine Publishers Association in 1972, and in 1977 he was named the Most Outstanding Black Publisher in History by the National Newspaper Publishers Association. He was inducted into both the Black Press Hall of Fame and the Publishing Hall of Fame in 1987. He was the recipient of the Salute to Greatness Award, the highest honor bestowed by the King Center, founded by Coretta Scott King, for his contribution to civil rights in 1988. He was also the recipient of the PUSH Foundation’s International Humanitarian Award in 1989. In 1996 Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, by President Bill Clinton. In 2003 Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business named him the Greatest Minority Entrepreneur in U.S. History, and Howard University named its school of journalism the John H. Johnson School of Communication. In May 2005 in Arkansas City, Arkansas, the John H. Johnson Cultural and Educational Museum, a joint project of Arkansas City and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, was dedicated to Johnson. Johnson died of heart failure in Northwestern Memorial Hospital, in Chicago, in August 2005. He is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery, in Chicago.

Bill Clinton said of Johnson at his funeral, “Out of the swarm of hardworking, family-loving men and women carving out their own version of the American dream, one man stood out because his dream was bigger and he had a vision for how to achieve it.” Indeed, Johnson was a self-made man who lived by several principles that played a crucial role in his becoming a shrewd and successful businessman. When teased about his homemade clothing in high school, he applied one of his principles, “Don’t get mad; get smart,” becoming an avid reader of books that changed his life and contributed to his success. “Failure is a word I don’t accept,” another of his principles, was the caption for Ebony magazine’s tribute to its founder. By never accepting failure, Johnson embarked on a memorable journey from poverty to success and left behind a remarkable legacy, especially among the African-American community. As Barack Obama, the U.S. senator from Illinois, said of Johnson, “He was a force that left an imprint on the conscience of a nation.”

Johnson’s autobiography, written with Lerone Bennett, Jr., is Succeeding Against the Odds (1989). Detailed biographical information is in Joy Bennett Kinnon, “Celebrating the Life and Legacy of John H. Johnson, 1918–2005,” Ebony (Oct. 2005). Obituaries are in the Chicago Tribune and New York Times (both 9 Aug. 2005).

Joyce K. Thornton

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