John Harold Johnson
January 19, 1918 – August 8, 2005
Notable: Entrepreneur & Publisher
John H. Johnson was born to Leroy and Gertrude Johnson in Arkansas City, Arkansas. Johnson’s father died unexpectedly in a work-related accident when he was six years old which resulted in him having to work to help support his family. His mother thought it was important for him to get an education so he continued school. But, due to segregation Arkansas City had no high schools for Black students. Rather than allowing his education to end at the eight grade Johnson repeated the grade so he could continue learning.
In 1933, Johnson and his mother visited Chicago for the World’s Fair and were motivated to relocate. Compared to the South, Chicago was seen as offering a greater possibility to escape racism and lack of opportunities. But, the Great Depression made it difficult to find jobs anywhere in the country so the Johnsons had to rely on public assistance for a while. A major bright point was that the move to Chicago enabled Johnson to attend DuSable High School. Johnson thrived in his new school environment becoming class president and editor of the school newspaper before graduating with honors.
Following graduation, Johnson had an experience that would have a tremendous impact on his life. While speaking at an Urban League dinner Johnson gave a speech that impressed Harry Pace, the president of Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company. That one interaction resulted in Pace offering Johnson a job and scholarship to the University of Chicago.
Supreme Liberty primarily served the Black community and upon joining the company Johnson became an assistant and later editor of its internal magazine. As part of his responsibilities Johnson reviewed and clipped relevant articles about Black people from various publications. At the time, mainstream media’s coverage of the Black community, when there was any, usually focused on crime. Johnson’s exposure to Black-focused news from around the country inspired the idea for his first publication, Negro Digest, which he imagined as a Black version of Reader’s Digest.
In 1941 John H. Johnson married Eunice Walker and one year later launched Johnson Publishing Co. He began approaching banks to obtain financing for his business idea but was unceremoniously dismissed due to his youth. Seeing no other alternative, he took out a $500 loan against his mother’s furniture and used the money to print and mail fundraising materials. With a mailing list composed of Supreme Life’s policyholders, Johnson sent offers for a $2 annual subscription to 20,000 people of which 3,000 responded providing $6,000 in startup funds.
To get copies of Negro Digest onto newsstands, Johnson had friends and co-workers visit newsstands to request a copy. Newsstand owners and operators took this as demand for the magazine and requested copies from distributors. Johnson reimbursed his friends for the copies they purchased and then resold them. The strategy was implemented in Detroit, New York City, and Philadelphia which grew circulation to monthly sales of 50,000 copies within a year of launch.
Building on the success of Negro Digest, Johnson launched Ebony in 1945 intending to put the lives of middle-class Black people on display. Combining a heavy focus on lifestyle stories and flashy photographs with market research, Ebony attracted White advertisers and was able to convince them that using Black models would be most effective for reaching Black consumers. This was a major shift as before Ebony there were no major Black models. Ebony became and remains one of the most widely read Black publications in the world.
Over the next few decades, Negro Digest underwent a period of discontinuation, revival, and a name change. Along the way a third magazine had been launched, first offering advice and later expanding to feature stories on Black entertainers, this publication would become Jet. Johnson Publishing Co. also branched out to other areas of media and publishing with a book division, book club, radio stations, and major investment in Essence magazine. Johnson launched Fashion Fair when the major cosmetic companies declined to create products to match the complexion of the models in his wife’s traveling fashion show. And coming full circle, Johnson acquired Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company where he started his career.
As the public face of Johnson Publishing Co., Johnson was heralded as a business visionary. In the 1950s and 1960s, he accompanied politicians on overseas visits and served as an ambassador for select events in African nations. He received several honorary degrees and served on multiple boards. Unfortunately, his son died at the age of 25 in 1981 and during that decade Johnson handed over management of the company to his daughter. He released his autobiography, Succeeding Against the Odds, in 1992 and was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996. John H. Johnson passed away in 2005 at the age of 87.
- Glasrud, Bruce. 2007. “John H. Johnson (1918-2005).” Blackpast. December 3, 2007. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/johnson-john-harold-1918-2005/.
- “John H. Johnson.” 2008. Entrepreneur. October 10, 2008. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/197650.
- “John H. Johnson.” 2020. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. February 7, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-H-Johnson.
- Martin, Douglas. 2005. “John H. Johnson, 87, Founder of Ebony, Dies.” The New York Times. The New York Times. August 9, 2005. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/09/business/media/john-h-johnson-87-founder-of-ebony-dies.html.
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