John H. Johnson

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Arkansas City, Arkansas
Birth Sign

Johnson Publishing Company was created by John Harold Johnson, an African-American businessman and publisher. He was raised by his mother and stepfather after losing his father when he was six years old, first in Arkansas City and subsequently in Chicago. Having had to strive from boyhood, he told himself that one day he would be successful. At the age of 24, he founded ‘Negro Digest,’ a popular African-American magazine, without the benefit of a bank loan or advertising. He raised enough money to create his second publication, ‘Ebony,’ within three years, using a marketing strategy that no one had conceived of before. Following that, he founded ‘Jet,’ which gradually expanded into cosmetics, radio stations, book publishing, and television production. He developed a generation of African-American photographers, advertisers, marketers, and circulation specialists while developing his empire, bringing out their hidden potential. By 1982, he was affluent enough to become the first African-American to appear on the Forbes 400 list.

Childhood and Adolescence

John Harold Johnson, also known as Johnny Johnson, was born in Arkansas City, Arkansas, on January 19, 1918. When Johnny was six years old, his father, Leroy Johnson, a slave’s son, perished in a sawmill accident. Following that, he was reared by his mother, Gertrude Johnson, a camp cook.

Johnson was compelled to start working at a young age after his father died. He later stated in an interview with Jim Hoskins, author of ‘Black Stars: African-American Entrepreneurs,’ that “I was a child who had to labor. Before I learned how to play, I had to learn how to work.”

Despite her hardships, his mother understood the value of education. As a result, she demanded that Johnson attend school, putting him in a black-only elementary school. Meanwhile, she married James Williams in 1927, who would subsequently become a major figure in Johnson’s life.

He only went to a school that went up to eighth grade. Because there was no high school for blacks in racially divided Arkansas, Gertrude chose to relocate to the north, where there were more opportunities for blacks. As a result, she focused on earning more money while Johnson repeated an eighth grade.

Johnson and his mother came to Chicago in 1933 to attend the World Trade Fair there. Gertrude saw an opportunity to stay in the city, which was then regarded a Mecca for migratory blacks. James William, his stepfather, also joined them in Chicago.

Unfortunately, it was the depths of the Great Depression at the time. While Johnson began attending Wendell Phillips High School, his mother and stepfather began hunting for work; however, they were unsuccessful. They eventually applied for benefits, albeit unwillingly.

Johnson and his mother did not like their time on welfare, which lasted just two years. Johnson transferred from Wendell Philips to DuSable High School at some point. He was forced to study with middle-class Blacks in both of these schools, where he was taunted not only for his torn clothes but also for his rustic habits.

Johnson made up his decision to establish himself, fueled by the taunts he had to face. As a result, he began to read self-help books at night. When he was elected class president, all of his hard work paid off, and he distinguished himself for his leadership abilities.

He also excelled as the editor of the school newspaper and the yearbook manager. He later joined the French Club and rose through the ranks of the student government to become president. He also got a job with the National Youth Administration, a New Deal project, at the same time.

Johnson received a $200 tuition scholarship to the University of Chicago after graduating with honors in 1936. He planned to give it up because he couldn’t figure out how he would meet other expenses. But fate had other plans.

The National Urban League, a civil rights organization based in New York, invited Johnson and a few other classmates to dinner shortly after the graduation ceremony. Johnson was asked to give a speech at the event. One of the guests was Harry H. Pace, President of Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company (SLL).

Johnson’s statement had such an impact on Pace that he offered him a job so that he could use his $200 scholarship to complete his studies. Johnson started working at SLL as a part-time office boy on September 1, 1936, while pursuing his education at the University of Chicago.

Early on in your career

Initially, John H. Johnson’s task was to read all of the available journals and select items that would be of interest to SLL’s clients, who were largely African-Americans. Pace would then examine the stories and have them published in ‘The Guardian,’ the company’s monthly magazine.

He grew closer to Pace over time, taking advantage of the opportunity to learn business tactics from him. He dropped out of college in 1939 to work full-time at SLL after being appointed to the position of editor of ‘The Guardian,’ preferring to learn on the job.

Negro Digest’s inception

While working as an editor, Johnson had the idea that African-Americans would appreciate an exclusive magazine that catered solely to their needs. He then planned to produce a black-owned version of ‘Readers Digest,’ tentatively dubbed ‘Negro Digest.’

He applied for a business loan with Chicago’s First National Bank first. The loan officers, on the other hand, told him right immediately that no institution would ever lend money to an African-American. When he approached established African-Americans, they were as dismissive. At this point, he was surrounded by only three individuals.

Apart from his wife, his mother was the first to rally around him, a woman of strong religious convictions and unwavering faith in her son. She agreed to let him put her furnishings up as collateral for a $500 loan.

Pace also aided him by giving him access to his company’s 2000 policyholders’ mailing list. Johnson wrote to them, requesting a $2 subscription, and received $6,000 from SLL policyholders alone. His wife assisted with mailing duties and ultimately worked in editorial and circulation.

Johnson established his ‘Negro Digest Publishing Company’ in 1942, operating out of a corner of the SLL building’s law library. In November 1942, the first print run of 5000 copies was released.

Johnson distributed 3000 copies of his first issue to his prepaid clients and outsourced the rest to a well-known distributor. He was advised that African-American reading materials did not sell and so would not be kept by newsstand operators.

Johnson then ordered his SLL friends to walk around the newsstands and request ‘Negro Digest.’ They started keeping the journal on their stand because they thought there was a need for it. Johnson then gave his pals money to purchase all of the copies, which he later returned to the distributor.

Johnson, buoyed by his success, went on to use the same method in other locations. In the south, though, he had to employ a different strategy, selling his journal on buses, parks, and cotton fields. The magazine’s circulation hit 50,000 in just eight months.

While African-Americans were primarily covered in white newspapers when they were involved in criminal acts, Johnson took care to include positive news about the community in his publications, including African-American history, literature, arts, and culture. He also began a unique feature called ‘If I Were a Negro,’ which featured contributions from a number of well-known white writers.

Johnson resigned from SLL in September 1943. Meanwhile, he had persuaded First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to contribute to the column ‘If I Were a Negro,’ which had a circulation of 150,000 when it was published in the October 1943 issue. In the same year, he purchased his own property.

Ebony’s beginnings

In ‘Negro Digest,’ the news was presented in a digest format. Johnson quickly discovered that readers wanted to see the news as well and that many of them were subscribing to magazines like ‘Life’ and ‘Look.’ This realization gave birth to ‘Ebony,’ a fine black African wood, according to his wife.

In November 1945, the first issue was released. It was a hit from the start, and when the first 25,000 copies sold out in the first few hours, he ordered another 25,000.

He had to do without marketing at first and rely completely on subscribers. However, by 1946, it began to contain advertisements from white heavyweights such as Armour Foods, Quaker Oats, Chesterfield, Elgin Watch, and Zenith, in addition to SLL.

John H. Johnson persuaded Martin Luther King Jr. to write a column for Ebony magazine in the late 1950s, giving him a national platform from which to rally support for his movement. Later, it began dedicating a chunk of each issue to pieces about African independence movements.

Later in Life

Johnson Publishing Company was renamed Negro Digest Publishing Company in 1949, and its offices were relocated to Calumet. Following that, he founded another magazine, ‘Tan,’ which is a ‘true-confession’ type of publication.

In 1951, he launched ‘Jet,’ a weekly news digest. Originally known as ‘The Weekly Negro News Magazine,’ it rose to national prominence in 1955 after covering the lynching of Emmett Till. Later, it covered the Civil Rights Movement, including the Montgomery bus boycott and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

He also founded ‘African American Stars’ and ‘Ebony Jr.,’ the latter of which is a children’s magazine. In 1958, he took a different path and founded the ‘Ebony Fashion Fair.’ Its popularity prompted him to create a cosmetics line, which he introduced in 1973.

He renamed the publication ‘Negro Digest’ to ‘Black World’ in 1970. He later founded ‘Fashion Fair Cosmetics’ in 1973. He went on to buy three radio stations, start a publishing company, and start a television production company after that. He had become one of the country’s wealthiest business leaders by the early 1980s.

John’s Major Projects

John H. Johnson is most known for founding the journal ‘Ebony,’ which has been published consistently since 1945. It began by focusing on the accomplishments of successful African-Americans in order to depict the African-American community in a positive light but gradually expanded to cover all other problems vital to the African-American community.

Professional historians were also employed by Ebony to document the community’s contribution to American history. It also promoted African-American culture by employing African-American models in its ads. As a result, it aided in the development of knowledge among the Black population at a time when lynching was a widespread occurrence.

Achievements & Awards

The United States Chamber of Commerce named John H. Johnson Young Man of the Year in 1951. He was the first African-American to be honored in this way.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People awarded him the Spingarn Medal in 1966 for his efforts in race relations.

The National Coalition of 100 Black Women honored him with the Candace Award for Distinguished Service in 1989.
On the 50th anniversary of Ebony magazine, Johnson got the Communication Award in 1995.
President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996.

At least thirty-one universities have awarded him honorary doctorates, including Howard University, Northwestern University, Howard University, University of South California, Carnegie Mellon Institute, and others.

Personal History and Legacy

Johnson met his future wife, Eunice Walker, who was a postgraduate student at Loyola University in Chicago, in 1940. On June 21, 1941, they married. Eunice rose through the ranks of Ebony Fashion Fair to become Secretary-Treasurer and Director.

Linda Johnson and John Harold Johnson Jr. were adopted by them. John, a 25-year-old man, died of sickle-cell anemia in 1981. Linda rose through the ranks of Johnson Publishing Company to become President and Chief Executive Officer, while her father remained Chairman.

Johnson also served on the boards of directors of Greyhound Corporation, Dillard’s Inc., First Commercial Bank of Little Rock, Dial Corporation, Zenith Radio Corporation, and Chrysler Corporation in his later years.

In the 1950s, he traveled to Africa and Russia with Vice President Richard Nixon and was involved in international diplomacy. He went to Ivory Coast with Robert Kennedy and then served as a special envoy to the Ivory Coast and Kenyan Independence Ceremonies in the 1960s.

John H. Johnson died of heart failure on August 8, 2005, and was buried in Chicago’s South Side’s Oakwood Cemetery. More than 1,000 people attended his burial, including future US President Barack Obama, activist Al Sharpton, and politician Carol Moseley Braun.

The United States Postal Service issued a first-class stamp featuring Johnson as part of its Black Heritage series in January 2012.

His legacy lives on in the John H. Johnson Cultural & Educational Museum and the John H. Johnson Cultural & Entrepreneurial Center in Arkansas City, as well as the John H. Johnson School of Communication at Howard University.

Estimated Net worth

John is one of the wealthiest journalists and one of the most well-known. John H. Johnson’s net worth is estimated to be around $360 billion, according to Wikipedia, Forbes, and Business Insider.