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
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
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.