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Johnson, John H. - Overview, Personal Life, Chronology: John H. Johnson, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact

african american business ebony

Johnson Communications;
Johnson Publishing
Company Inc.


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.

Johnson, John V.(?–1907) - Gambling house owner, Gains Political Power, Chronology, Survives Anti-Policy Legislation [next] [back] Johnson, Jimmie - NASCAR Nextel Cup driver, Career, Sidelights

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about 6 years ago

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