The late John H. Johnson was the founder of the Johnson Publishing Company, the largest Black-owned firm of its kind in the United States. Johnson, who dabbled in other ventures beyond publications, is also the first African-American to land on the Forbes 400 list.
John Harold Johnson was born in rural Arkansas City, Ark. on January 19, 1918. The grandson of former slaves, the family suffered tragedy with the loss of Johnson’s father. His stepfather made a desperate move for prosperity by moving the family north to Chicago for greater opportunities.
While at DuSable High School, which included classmates Nat King Cole and Redd Foxx, Johnson secured a scholarship with the University of Chicago after his 1936 graduation. Despite the scholarship, Johnson still couldn’t afford college, but a speech he delivered at an Urban League dinner impressed Supreme Life Insurance Company owner, Harry Pace. Pace gave Johnson a job so that he could enroll in college.
Just as he did in high school, Johnson excelled eventually going to Northwestern University. He was also a star employee at Supreme Life working his way up in the company. While creating a monthly digest of news articles, Johnson was inspired to create a Black version of the Reader’s Digest publication but had trouble securing the seed money.
Johnson crafted an innovative idea of asking all of Supreme Life’s members via its mailing list to buy into the new digest he wanted to create, which would be known as The Negro Digest. Johnson asked for a two-dollar pre-order subscription, but still needed $500 to mail off the letters. Johnson figured that even a 15 percent response to his request would give him the boost he needed. But in order to get the $500 Johnson used his mother’s furniture as collateral.
In 1942, The Negro Digest was born and enjoyed a robust run initially before its end in 1951. The publication was revived in the ’60’s and was later renamed Black World which lasted until 1976.
But Ebony Magazine, launched in 1945 as a Black version of LIFE magazine was extremely popular. Johnson credited that success to the positive portrayals of Black life in the magazine. Ebony, which remains a print publication, now enjoys a strong digital presence in the new media marketplace.
Johnson’s Jet Magazine began in 1951 as a quick-hit news weekly that covered wide ground in a small format. The publication and its Jet Beauty Of The Week moved to an all-digital format in 2014.
Other magazines in Johnson’s stable included Ebony Man and Ebony Jr. He also owned the Fashion Fair Cosmetics line and owned three radio stations.
Johnson was married to Eunice Walker Johnson from 1941 until his death in 2005 at the age of 87. Their son John died from sickle-cell anemia in 1981. Their daughter, Linda Johnson Price, still serves as chairman of her father’s company, although it was sold to Clear View Group earlier this year. They are and African-American venture company, according to reports.
PHOTO: Johnson Publications