Black Billionaire Spotlight: John H. Johnson

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John Harold Johnson (January 19, 1918 – August 8, 2005) was an American businessman and publisher. He was the founder of the Johnson Publishing Company. In 1982, he became the first African American to appear on the Forbes 400. Johnson’s Ebony and Jet magazines were among the most influential African-American businesses in media in the second half of the twentieth century.

Early years and education

Johnson was born in rural Arkansas City, Arkansas, the grandson of slaves. When he was 6 years old, his father died in a sawmill accident and Johnson was raised by his mother and stepfather. He attended an overcrowded and segregated elementary school. Such was his love of learning, he repeated the eighth grade rather than discontinue his education, as there was no public high school for African Americans in his community.

After a visit with his mother to 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 moved to Chicago, Illinois in 1933 to try to find work and for Johnson to continue his education. Johnson entered all-black DuSable High School while his mother and stepfather scoured the city for jobs during the day. He looked for work after school and during the summer as well, but without success. His mother was not even able to find any domestic work, which 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 Progress Administration (WPA) and Johnson himself secured a job with the National Youth Administration (NYA).

Johnson endured much teasing and taunting at his high school for his ragged clothes and country ways, as he encountered something he never knew existed: middle-class blacks. At DuSable High School his classmates included Nat King Cole, Redd Foxx and future entrepreneur William Abernathy. 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. He attended high school during the day and studied self-improvement books at night. 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 a dinner held by the Urban League. When Harry Pace, president of the Supreme Life Insurance Company, 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 Life also gave him the opportunity to see the day-to-day operations of a business owned by an African American and fostered his dream of starting a business of his own.

Negro Digest

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. He 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 Digest in 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.

Ebony

Although Negro Digest/Black World achieved some success and at its height had a circulation of more than 100,000, it was dwarfed by Johnson’s subsequent publication, Ebony, 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 Americans. 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. Professional historians were recruited for the magazine’s staff so that the contributions of African 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.

john-h-johnsons-quotes-2.jpgIn 1951, Johnson launched Tan (a “true confessions”-type magazine). In 1951, Jet, a weekly news digest, began. 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.

Other business interests

Johnson expanded his business interests to areas other than his magazines. He became chairperson and chief executive officer of the Supreme Life Insurance Company. He developed a line of cosmetics, purchased three radio stations, started a book publishing company, and a television production company, and served on the board of directors of several major businesses, including the Greyhound Corporation.

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