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JOHN JOHNSON

Publisher/CEO (1918-)

Born in Arkansas City, Arkansas.  His mother was the second generation from slavery.  She only completed the third grade.  She worked hard in the fields and kitchens of Arkansas.  Mrs. Johnson was a strong woman who had many dreams for her son.  Both John's family and community included many caring adults, who closely monitored the actions of the young.  There was much discipline and love all around John.  John attended Arkansas City Colored School through the eighth grade.  Then, there was no more schooling available in Arkansas City.  John's mother heard that Chicago offered education, good jobs and freedom.  She therefore, worked extra jobs to get enough money together to go to Chicago.  Since John's stepfather refused to move to Chicago, his mother had to make a decision. 

Although she loved her husband very much, she decided that freedom and education for her son was more important.  She and her son moved to Chicago alone.  John H. Johnson launched his publishing business in 1942, while he was still in college in Chicago.  The idea for a Black-oriented magazine came to him while he was working part-time for Supreme Life Insurance Co. of America, where one of his jobs was to clip magazine and newspaper articles about the black community.  With $500 raised by pawning family furniture, Johnson mailed a $2 charter subscription offer to potential subscribers.  He got 3,00 replies and with that $6,000 printed the first issue of "Negro Digest", patterned after "Readers Digest."  Within a year circulation was 50,000.  In 1945 Johnson started "Ebony" magazine, which was immediately popular and is still the company's premier publication.  "Ebony" (similar to "Life," but focusing on black culture and achievements) and "Jet" (a celebrity-oriented magazine started in 1951) were the only publications for Blacks in the US for 20 years. 

In the early days Johnson was unable to obtain advertising, so he formed his own mail-order business, called Beauty Star, and advertised its products (dresses, wigs, hair care products, and vitamins) through his magazines.  He won his first major account, Zenith Radio, in 1947; Johnson landed Chrysler in 1954, only after sending a salesman to Detroit every week for 10 years.  By the 1960s Johnson had became one of the most prominent Black men in the US.  In 1963, he posed with John F. Kennedy to publicize a special issue of "Ebony" celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation.  In 1972, US magazine publishers named Johnson Publisher of the Year.  Since 1978, Johnson Publishing has sponsored the "American Black Achievement Awards," a nationally syndicated TV special, and each year it hosts the Ebony Fashion Fair, a traveling fashion show that visits more than 175 North American cities.  Johnson Publishing is owned and controlled by founder John Johnson and his family. 

Revised: July 18, 2013.