Chairman and publisher, Johnson Publishing Company
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, 1942–2002, 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.
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.
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, and—in the South—underground 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 Chicago—1820 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.
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 .
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.