John H. Johnson
Founder of Johnson Publishing Co.
"When I see a barrier, I cry and I curse, and then I get a ladder and climb over it."-John H. Johnson
John H. Johnson rose from poverty to become one of the world's most influential media pioneers by creating the largest black-owned publishing company in the United States. But more important, through the landmark magazines he founded, Ebony and Jet, Johnson gave African-Americans a voice and a face, and, in his words, "a new sense of somebody-ness," of who they were and what they could do at a time when blacks were virtually invisible in mainstream American culture.
Johnson credits much of his success to his mother. Born in Arkansas City, Arkansas, Johnson's father died when he was only 6, forcing everyone in his family to work to survive. "I was a working child," he explains to Jim Hoskins, author of Black Stars: African-American Entrepreneurs. "I learned how to work before I learned how to play."
Nevertheless, Johnson's mother realized the importance of education and insisted that he attend school, which he did through the eighth grade. But there was no high school for blacks in Arkansas City. To ensure her son would receive a good education, Johnson's mother toiled as a cook for levee workers until she'd saved enough money so she and John could move to Chicago, which had become a mecca for blacks seeking to escape the poverty and prejudice of the South.
Johnson and his mother arrived in Chicago in 1933. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and due to lack of work, they were forced to rely on welfare for two years. That experience shamed Johnson and sparked in him a burning desire to succeed. "Both my mother and I were determined that we weren't going to stay on welfare," Johnson explains. "We always worked toward doing better, toward having a better life. We never had any doubts that we would."
Johnson displayed his determination to succeed as a student at Chicago's DuSable High School, graduating with honors in 1936. At a National Urban League dinner to honor Johnson and other students who had distinguished themselves, Johnson met Harry H. Pace, president of Supreme Life Insurance Co. of America, which was then the largest black-owned business in the North. Impressed by the young man, Pace asked Johnson about his plans for the future. Johnson explained that he wanted to go to college but could not afford the tuition. Pace offered Johnson a part-time job at Supreme to help him pay for tuition. This would prove to be a major turning point in Johnson's life.
The following September, Johnson enrolled at the University of Chicago and began working at Supreme. He started as an assistant on the Supreme Liberty Guardian, the company's in-house newsletter, and was eventually promoted to editor of the Guardian. One of Johnson's tasks was to comb black newspapers and magazines from around the country and brief Pace on what he learned. But Johnson soon found that his wealth of knowledge put him in the spotlight on the social circuit-African-Americans were hungry for news of the black world that wasn't just in connection with crime, which was how the white media usually reported it.
This discovery gave Johnson the idea of publishing a magazine for general black audiences. In 1942, he founded Johnson Publishing Co. and set out to publish his first magazine, Negro Digest. But when the 24-year-old tried to find a bank that would lend him money, he was waved away by bankers who contemptuously called him "boy."
Undaunted, Johnson decided to go directly to the public for start-up money. Putting up his mother's furniture as collateral, Johnson borrowed $500, which he used to mail out offers to Supreme Life's 20,000 policyholders for discount charter subscriptions. Three thousand people sent in the $2 annual subscription, giving Johnson $6,000 to pursue his dream.
To convince a distributor to take on the magazine, Johnson got 30 fellow employees and friends to ask for Negro Digest at newsstands along Chicago's South Side. He also reimbursed friends who bought up most of the copies, convincing dealers the magazine was in demand. He then took those copies and resold them. This ploy was repeated in Detroit, New York City and Philadelphia. Circulation grew slowly at first. Then Johnson began publishing a series of articles titled "If I Were A Negro," in which prominent whites imagined being black. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was among those who contributed to the series, which caused a dramatic jump in circulation. Within a year, Negro Digest was selling 50,000 copies per month.
Inspired by his success, Johnson started his second magazine, Ebony, in 1945. Ebony and Johnson showed that blacks led successful middle-class lives, which played a major role in convincing white corporations to advertise in the black media, as well as persuading advertisers to use black models. Using meticulous market research, Johnson and his staff showed white advertisers that it was in their best interest to reach out to black consumers, and they proved that ads featuring black models had a greater response rate than ads featuring white models. "These things are accepted today, but they were new in the '40s," Johnson explains in a 1985 Ebony interview. "There were no major black models before Ebony, and there were few black salespeople for major companies before Ebony. I don't think we're completely responsible, but I don't know anyone who is more responsible."
Johnson discontinued Negro Digest in 1950 (he would revive it 10 years later as Black World) and started an advice magazine called Tan. By 1971, Johnson had changed the title of Tan to Black Stars and expanded its editorial content to include features on black entertainers. The following year, he began publishing it as a pocket-sized weekly under the name Jet.
After Jet, Johnson branched out into other projects, including a book division, a book club and a high-end cosmetics line for blacks. He also purchased two radio stations, making him the first African-American in Chicago to own a broadcasting outlet. In addition to his own ventures, Johnson is also a major shareholder in Essence, a magazine for black women.
Thanks to Johnson's determination and unique vision, he has become one of the most successful and wealthy black men in America today. Led by its flagship publication, Ebony (with a circulation of 2.1 million), the family-owned Johnson Publishing Co. is one of the largest minority-owned businesses and the largest black-owned publishing firm in the world. Looking back on his accomplishments, Johnson says, "There is no secret to success. You have to have a bit of luck, and you have to be at the right place at the right time. I was fortunate enough to have a mother who taught me very fundamental things about success. She taught me that you have to earn success, which means you have to prepare yourself, you have to work hard, you have to have commitment, and you have to have faith. You have to believe that things are possible. If there is a secret, the secret is in all those things."
Like many entrepreneurs, John H. Johnson built a multimillion-dollar empire by recognizing a demand and filling it. It was a strategy that would lead him to success not only in publishing, but also in the cosmetics industry. In 1958, Johnson began sponsoring the Ebony Fashion Fair, the world's largest touring fashion show, which has donated more than $46 million to black charities. Early on, he had trouble finding cosmetics shades dark enough for his models.
After unsuccessful attempts to convince Estee Lauder and Revlon to produce cosmetics specifically for black women (both companies now do), Johnson started his own cosmetics company, Fashion Fair, and promoted it through direct mailings to Ebony and Jet subscribers. Today, Fashion Fair is the world leader in the field of cosmetics for women of color. Johnson considers it one of his greatest triumphs. "I not only proved that there was a market when they said there wasn't one," he says in a Forbes interview, "but so far the giants have not been able to shake my position."
Few will argue that John H. Johnson played a major role in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. In fact, the first issue of Negro Digest featured contributions by Langston Hughes and early Civil Rights leader Walter White. And many agree that the Civil Rights Movement itself would not have been as broadly understood by the masses in this country if it weren't for Ebony and Jet. Writers for the magazines attended Civil Rights Movement meetings in churches across the South and gave readers an insider's view of the struggle. As former Johnson Publishing advertising executive Ronald Sampson explained in an interview in Chicago magazine, "The general news media was covering it as a confrontation. Ebony and Jet were inside the churches and were able to tell what went on in the meetings."
Nevertheless, the focus of Ebony has shifted over the years, prompting some critics in the black community to argue that Johnson devotes too much space to good news. "I know what some people are trying to say-that I don't put out an 'opinion' magazine. But you can't think about race 24 hours a day. You've got to take a rest," Johnson told Nancy Millman of Chicago. "Ebony started out as a magazine about achievement and success. We wanted black people to feel good about themselves. And in that sense I think we have succeeded-and continue to succeed."