Long before there was Oprah and Michael Jordan representing African Americans on the Forbes 400 list, there was John H. Johnson. The media pioneer’s successes include the landmark magazines Ebony and Jet, which eventually led him to be the first African American on Forbes’ coveted list.
So how did the Arkansas City native fight his way to the top of his game? Johnson, who once said, “to succeed, one must be creative and persistent”, practiced what he preached.
Born the grandson of slaves in 1918, Johnson was raised by his mother, a domestic worker and his father, a sawmill labourer. The family moved to Chicago in 1933, several years after Johnson’s father died in a work accident.
No stranger to labour himself, Johnson worked part-time while attending high school as his family lived on welfare during the Great Depression. Yet he maintained his optimism: “We always worked toward doing better, toward having a better life.”
Upon graduating with honours in 1936, Johnson worked at Supreme Life Insurance Company, moving up the ranks to eventually becoming the editor of the company’s internal magazine, the Guardian.
As the company catered to African American clients, Johnson’s research on other black newspapers and magazines showed him a large gap in the market, and he was ready to fill it, to “give blacks a new somebodiness.”
Financed by a $500 loan from his mother’s furniture as security, a 24-year-old Johnson set out to create Negro Digest, a black spin on Reader’s Digest. Similar to crowdfunding today, Johnson asked 20,000 of Supreme Life’s clients to pay $2 each to pre-subscribe to the magazine. With 3,000 people in for the subscription (and strategically getting friends to ask for it at newsstands), the magazine sold an impressive 50,000 copies within its first year.
From there, Johnson’s successes continued to grow. In 1945 came Ebony, a black spin on the popular LIFE Magazine. Ebony was later joined by the launch of news magazine Jet in 1951. With both projects, Rupert Cornwell of the Independent writes, Johnson aimed to show that “blacks lived rich, interesting and normal lives.”
Although the magazines were known for their refreshing positivity, that didn’t stop Johnson from pushing boundaries from time to time. The magazines are credited for reporting from the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. Most notably, Jet famously published a photo in 1955 of Emmett Till’s open casket at his funeral. Jet and Ebony were also the first black magazines that white corporations advertised in, and the first to employ black models.
Johnson’s other ventures included ownership of three radio stations and Fashion Fair Cosmetics, a makeup line for women of colour that he started when his wife struggled to find makeup in her shade.
Johnson clearly had vision and wasn’t afraid to go for it. “The only failure is a failure to try,” he once said. He succeeded by seeing demand, taking risks and finding a way to fill it, whether with his magazines or his cosmetics line.
Although Johnson passed away in 2005, his family owned Johnson Publishing Company, the largest black owned publisher in the world, until it sold in 2016. Johnson’s legacy lives on as Ebony continues to thrive under new ownership in print and Jet in digital, showcasing the accomplishments of black people around the world, some 73 years later.
Laura D’Angelo | Contributing Writer