Claim to fame: Founder of Ebony, Jet, Negro Digest, and other magazines.
Quote: “I wasn’t trying to make history--I was trying to make money.”
Quote about him: “Only a handful of men and women leave an imprint on the conscience of a nation…. John Johnson was one of these men.” --Senator Barack Obama, speaking at Johnson’s funeral service in 2005.
Life in 300 words or less: John H. Johnson told the story many times (in fact I heard him tell it in a lecture to a bunch of us magazine editors at Columbia University around 1990): As an ambitious but cash-strapped young man in 1942 he borrowed $500, using his mother’s new furniture as collateral, to start what would one day become the Johnson Publishing empire. The $500 bought postage stamps for the first subscription solicitations for a new magazine Johnson was calling Negro Digest.
Negro Digest wasn’t the first African-American magazine. Earlier ones included the Moon, the Horizon, and the Crisis, all edited by W.E.B. DuBois, and many others. But Johnson’s magazine and those he would later launch may have been the most effective in bringing a mass market readership and mainstream national advertisers to their pages. Negro Digest was replaced by Jet, another small-format magazine, in 1952.
Meanwhile, in 1945, Johnson launched Ebony, larger in page size and a bigger gamble financially. Ebony took some of its look and inspiration from Life magazine, aiming in Johnson’s words to “mirror the happier side of Negro life--the positive, everyday achievements from Harlem to Hollywood. But when we talk about race as the No. 1 problem of America, we’ll talk turkey.”
Unlike Life, Ebony is still with us. Not all of Johnson’s magazines were successful, however. His short-lived titles included Tan Confessions, Copper Romance, and a pocket-size magazine called Hue.
For more: Johnson’s autobiography, “Succeeding Against the Odds,” written with his longtime colleague Lerone Bennett, Jr., was published by Warner Books in 1989 and is among the most readable books of its kind. A brief biography appears on the Johnson Publishing Company Web site. The October 2005 issue of Ebony, from which the inset photo above comes, also covers his life in highly illustrated detail. -- Greg Daugherty, 10/08