How John Johnson Built A Media Empire With A $500 Loan And Became The First Black Millionaire To Appear On Forbes In 1982

John<a href=httpshowafricacom> <a>Johnson<a href=httpshowafricacom> <a>perusing the July 1950 issue of Ebony magazine Credit Neal DouglassAustin History Center Austin Public Library


Ebony Magazine founder John Johnson is widely regarded as the most influential Black publisher in modern history. He worked for a life insurance company that catered to African American customers before graduating from university. While working for Supreme Life Insurance Company, he was assigned the task of compiling weekly news clippings for his boss, which inspired him to create an African-American magazine.

He founded Negro Digest in 1942. Its first issue sold approximately 3,000 copies and grew to 50,000 monthly circulations. In 1945, he founded Ebony, a general-interest magazine aimed at African Americans.

The initial print run of 25,000 copies of Ebony was completely sold out. It had a circulation of about 1.7 million by the early twenty-first century.”

Johnson began his publishing career with a $500 loan against his mother’s furniture and $6,000 in charter subscriptions for the Negro Digest, later renamed Black World. Johnson Publishing expanded once more in 1951, with the launch of Jet, the world’s largest African American news weekly magazine (1951–2014).

Johnson used his sales skills to land multiple advertisements that brought in a lot of money. His advertising clients include both white and black-owned businesses. Zenith, a radio manufacturer, was reportedly the first company he persuaded to advertise in his magazines, and others quickly followed suit.

At a time when African-Americans were rarely covered in the press, unless they were committing crimes, Ebony earned acclaim and became revolutionary for its coverage of the civil rights movement and profiling of successful Black businesses. Naturally, it evolved into a platform for Black startups and businesses to advertise. Ebony and Jet meant a lot to African-Americans because they reinforced positive images of themselves.


The magazines were available in nearly every black-owned beauty salon and barbershop across the country, where customers would typically read while waiting to be serviced. At one point, Ebony alone was said to reach more than 40% of the nation’s black adults — a reach unrivaled by any other general-interest magazine in the country.

Johnson built a massively successful publishing and marketing empire with Ebony and Jet Magazine, which earned him a spot on Forbes magazine’s annual list of the 400 richest Americans in 1982, making him the first black person to do so.

Johnson also owned Fashion Fair Cosmetics, a makeup and skincare company for black women, and Supreme Beauty Products, a hair care company for men and women. He also ran three radio stations, a publishing house, and a television production company.

Johnson was born in Arkansas City, Arkansas, on January 19, 1918, to Leroy and Gertrude Johnson Williams. He is a slave’s grandson.

His father died in a sawmill accident, and he and his mother moved to Chicago in 1933. He attended an all-black high school. According to the Guardian, he not only excelled but also became the president of his class and edited the school paper.

Aside from publishing and marketing, Johnson was active in local and national politics. According to historians, Johnson traveled to nine African countries with then-Vice President Richard Nixon in 1957.

He was also President John F. Kennedy’s Special Ambassador to the independence ceremonies in Ivory Coast. He was also sent to Kenya for the same reason. Furthermore, President Nixon appointed Johnson to the Commission for the Commemoration of the United Nations’ 25th Anniversary.

He received several awards before his death. President Bill Clinton bestowed upon him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. He also received the National Newspaper Publishers Association’s Spingarn Medal for the Most Outstanding Black Publisher in History. He also received at least 30 honorary doctorates from colleges and universities across the United States.

Johnson died in 2005 of heart failure. He was survived by his wife, Eunice, daughter, Linda Johnson-Rice, and a grandson at the time. After a long battle with sickle cell, his only son died in 1981.



Written by How Africa News

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