On August 8, 2005 John H. Johnson, America’s leading black publisher passed leaving behind a legacy of contribution to the black experience and a great fortune.
John H. Johnson was born January 19, 1918 in rural Arkansas City, Arkansas, the grandson of slaves His father Leroy Johnson was killed in an accident when Johnson was eight years old. His mother Gertrude Jenkins Johnson worked tirelessly saving her earnings as a cook and washerwoman until she could afford to move her family to Chicago.
In Chicago Johnson attended DuSable High, a prominent all black high-school that featured students from various backgrounds. Nat King Cole and Redd Foxx were two of his classmates. At DuSable, Johnson brushed shoulders with middle-class blacks for the first time and was initially teased for his poor clothing and accent. He quickly earned the respect of his peers due to his leadership, integrity, and academic achievements, becoming student council president and editor of the school newspaper and class yearbook.
Upon graduation in 1936 Johnson was offered a tuition scholarship to the University of Chicago though he found himself unable to afford additional expenses. After a speech given at the Urban League he was given a job by Harry Pace, a prominent black businessman, owner of Supreme Life Insurance. As Pace’s assistant one of Johnson’s jobs was to collect newspaper articles relevant to the black community into a monthly collection so the busy Pace could remain in the know and better appeal to his customers.
Johnson saw an opportunity and using his mother’s furniture as collateral for a loan, founded Johnson Publishing Company. It’s first publication, ‘Negro Digest’ released its first issue in 1942. The collection of reprinted articles concerning African American interests proved popular and within six months circulation had reached 50,000.
Recognizing the need for a magazine that provided original content centered around the Black experience, Johnson launched in 1945. Modeled after 'Life’ Ebony featured Photo essays and articles about current events, race relations, black militancy, civil rights legislation, activism and other aspects of segregation and discrimination as well as successful African Americans. Professional historians were recruited for the magazine’s staff so that the contributions of African Americans to the history of the United States could be adequately documented. African-American models were used in the magazine’s advertisements and a conscious effort was made to portray positive aspects of African-American life and culture.
The monthly magazine was a spectacular success allowing Johnson to launch the weekly 'Jet’ magazine. This smaller project featured up to date political coverage, fashion and beauty tips, entertainment news, dating advice, and health tips. Also extremely popular, Redd Foxx referred to it as “The Negro Bible”.
In 1961 Johnson sought to fulfill interest for a magazine devoted to the growing Black consciousness movement and revived the defunct Negro Digest in 1961 (changed to 'Black World’ in 1970).
He hired notable black intellectual Hoyt Fuller as editor in chief. Under Fuller’s guidance, the magazine became a leading voice in African-American art and culture reporting on controversial issues such as Black Power and featuring poetry, artwork, and photography including work by Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti, andCarolyn Rodgers. Political essays were common and contributors included Frantz Fanon and Martin Luther King Jr.
As the country’s premier black publisher Johnson was often at the forefront of the country’s civil rights struggle. In 1955 after three men brutally beat and murdered black teenager Emmet Till. Seeking to expose racism’s ugly reality his mother demanded an open casket funeral and approached various publications asking that they publish photos of her son’s body. Only two took up her challenge, Chicago and Jet magazine. Johnson’s his decision to release photographs of Emmett Till’s brutal murder at the request of his mother is seen by many as journalism’s finest moment.
Under Johnson’s skillful leadership JPC grew to include book publishing, television, and the cosmetics company 'Fashion Fair’. The company earned Johnson millions, making him the first person who the list of Forbe’s 400 richest Americans list. After his death, Johnson left the company in the hands of his family.