John Harold Johnson (born 1918), an African American entrepreneur, turned a five hundred dollar loan into a multimillion-dollar business empire and became one of the richest men in the United States. He headed the most prosperous and powerful African American publishing company with such titles as Ebony, Jet, Ebony Man, EM, Ebony Jr., as part of his journalistic successes.
John H. Johnson was born in Arkansas City, Arkansas, on January 19, 1918. When he was six years old, his father died, so Johnson was raised by his mother and step-father. He attended an overcrowded and segregated elementary school. Such was his love of learning, he repeated the eighth grade rather than discontinue his education, since there was no public high school for African Americans in his community. After a visit with his mother to the 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 made the move to Chicago, Illinois, in 1933 to try to find work and for Johnson to continue his education. Johnson entered DuSable High School while his mother and step-father scoured the city for jobs during the day. He looked for work after school and during the summer. Their attempts were un-rewarded. His mother was not even able to find any domestic work, the work that 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 Projects Administration (WPA) and Johnson himself secured a job with the National Youth Administration.
Johnson endured much teasing and taunting at his high school for his ragged clothes and country ways. 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. 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 dinner held by the Urban League. When the president of the Supreme Life Insurance Company, Harry Pace, 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 also gave him the opportunity to see the day-today operations of an African American-owned business and fostered his dream of starting a business of his own.
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. Johnson 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 Digestin 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.
Although that publication achieved some success and at its height had a circulation of more than 100,000, it could not be compared with Johnson's subsequent publication, Ebony magazine, 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 American. 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. Trained historians were recruited for the magazine's staff so that the contributions of African American 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.
In 1950, Johnson launched Tan magazine -a true confessions type magazine and in 1951, Jet -a weekly news digest. 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. In 1972, he was named publisher of the year by the major magazine publishers in the United States.
Johnson expanded his business interests to areas other than his magazines. He became chairperson and chief executive officer of the Supreme Life Insurance Company, where he had begun as part-time office boy. He developed a line of cosmetics, purchased three radio stations, and started a book publishing company, and a television production company. He served on the board of directors of several major businesses, such as the Greyhound Corporation, and received numerous honors and awards for his achievements, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Spingarn Medal in 1966 for his contributions in the area of race relations.
In 1993, Johnson published his autobiography wherein he states "if it could happen to a Black boy from Arkansas it could happen to anyone" This publication celebrated the 50th anniversary of his publishing company.
In 1995, Johnson received the Communication Award for Communication on the occasion of Ebony magazine's 50th anniversary. Alfred C. Sykes, the chairman of the Center for Communication and president of Hearst Media Technology said "Mr. Johnson is a role model for many young people today, an example of how hard work, commitment and belief in oneself can lead to outstanding achievement. He rose from disadvantaged circumstances to achieve success in both business and national service during a time when great obstacles were placed in his path."
Because of his influential position in the African American community, Johnson was invited by the U.S. government to participate in several international missions. In 1959, he accompanied the vice president of the United States on a mission to Russia and Poland. He was appointed special ambassador to represent the United States at the independence ceremonies in the Ivory Coast in 1961 and in Kenya in 1963. Over the years Johnson had devoted a portion of several issues of Ebony to articles relating to African independence movements, but in August 1976 he dedicated an entire special issue to the subject "Africa, the Continent of the Future."
In 1996, President Bill Clinton bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Johnson and in 1997 Johnson was inducted into the Junior Achievement National Business Hall of Fame.
Further Reading on John Harold Johnson
Johnson's autobiography Succeeding Against the Odds was published in 1989; biographical materials also appear in all of his publications Ebony, Jet, Black World,; other articles have appeared in Black Enterprise, Chicago Tribune, Forbes, Fortune. Newsweek, LA Times, New York Post, Time, Printer's Ink, and Ebony Negro Almanac (1976); some information about him is available in The Shaping of African American America (1975) by Lerone Bennett, Jr.; and in African American Capitalism, Strategy for Business in the Ghetto (1969) by Theodore L. Cross.