John H. Johnson
National Visionary

January 19, 1918 – August 8, 2005
Born in Arkansas City, Arkansas

Publisher, Corporate Executive; Founder of Ebony & Jet Magazines

John H. Johnson was the founder of a major international media and cosmetics empire that includes EBONY and JET magazines, Fashion Fair Cosmetics and EBONY Fashion Fair. Founded in 1942, Johnson Publishing is the number one African American publishing company in the world.

Johnson was one of America’s most successful and wealthiest entrepreneurs. Ebony, his flagship publication, is the nation's number one African American-focused magazine with a monthly readership of over 10 million. In 1982, he became the first African American to be named one of the 400 richest people in America by Forbes magazine. In 1996, President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the nation.

Johnson was born a descendant of slaves in Arkansas City, Ark., in 1918. At the time, no high schools for blacks existed in Arkansas City. His mother’s dream was for Johnson to finish high school. So the family moved to Chicago and Johnson graduated from DuSable High School, where his classmates included Nat King Cole and Redd Foxx. Here, Johnson’s ambition and drive landed him several leadership positions including senior class president, editor of the newspaper, and yearbook editor.

In 1936, the University of Chicago offered him a tuition scholarship but Johnson had no way to pay for expenses. After impressing Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company president Harry Pace with a speech he delivered at an Urban League dinner, Pace offered Johnson a job as an office boy. This job provided him with the funds to attend college. Johnson attended both the University of Chicago and Northwestern University.

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife
Johnson’s abilities led to increased responsibilities, and he eventually became Mr. Pace’s personal assistant. One of Mr. Johnson’s tasks was to collect news articles of interest to the black community and then brief Mr. Pace on them. It was at this point that the idea for a black news publication was born.

Unable to secure any bank financing for his project, Mr. Johnson created the Johnson Publishing Company with a $500 loan against his mother's furniture. He began publication of the Negro Digest in November of 1942. It was a success from the start and with the help of magazine distributor Joseph Levy, Negro Digest circulation reached 50,000 in only six months. During this time he also married his wife, Eunice.

Trying to reach an even wider audience, Mr. Johnson modeled his next project on magazines like LIFE and Look and created Ebony, a magazine designed to bring hope and positive images to African Americans following World War II. In addition to highlighting the achievements of successful African Americans, Ebony also dealt with the political and social issues facing blacks in America. The unparalleled success of the publication led to the creation of Tan, Jet, Hue, Ebony Man and Ebony Jr. Mr. Johnson also expanded his media ventures into radio, television and book publishing.

His prominence and visibility in the African American community led to several special government appointments including trips with Vice President Nixon to Africa in 1957 and later to Russia and Poland in 1959. In 1970, President Nixon appointed him as a member to the President's Commission for the Observance of the 25th Anniversary of the United Nations.

In addition to his media ventures, Mr. Johnson was on the board of trustees for several major corporations and received many important awards, the NAACP's coveted Spingarn Medal of 1966 among them. In 1989, Mr. Johnson published his autobiography, Succeeding Against the Odds.

John Johnson passed away on August 8, 2005 in Chicago at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. He was 87.


John H. Johnson's Wikipedia Page

URL (Click to bookmark): http://www.visionaryproject.org/johnsonjohn