This week in history: John H. Johnson builds an empire

The Chicago publisher became one of the most prominent voices in the city as his magazines celebrating the Black community, Ebony and Jet, reached untold heights. Here’s how he did it.

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The caption for this undated photo of John H. Johnson says: Publisher John H. Johnson relaxes in his office at 820 S. Michigan Ave., and he’s earned the right. His Johnson Publishing Co. has moved into the No. 1 spot among black-owned enterprises.

Kethleen Reeve

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

No one ever believed that a magazine written for the Black community that refused to carry advertisers (at least at first) would succeed, Chicago Daily News reporter Phil S. Hanna wrote in 1951. John H. Johnson proved them all wrong — he published three of them.

The legendary entrepreneur, who died this week on Aug. 8, 2005, had barely begun building what would become his massive empire in 1951 when the Chicago Daily News profiled him.

Born in Arkansas in 1918, Johnson lost his father at a young age, and his mother kept the family together, Hanna wrote. They moved to Chicago where Johnson attended DuSable High School. He excelled there as the president of his class and editor of the school yearbook and newspaper.

Upon graduation, Johnson began working for Liberty Life Insurance Co., a large and respected Black-owned firm in Bronzeville, and before long, he caught the attention of its president, Harry H. Pace.

“Pace urged him to attend the University of Chicago and later Northwestern, where he majored in journalism and commerce,” Hanna reported.

The Daily News published its first story on Johnson’s budding empire in 1942 when he launched The Negro Digest, a magazine published weekly out of the offices at 3507 S. Park Way, according to a Nov. 21 report.

“The first issue contains condensations of articles by Carl Sandburg, Mrs. Helen Cody Baker and many others, and of a speech delivered by the Most Reverend Bernard J. Sheil, bishop of the Chicago Catholic Diocese, at the Catholic Charities Conference in Kansas City, Mo., Sept. 28,” the 1942 report said.

According to Hanna’s 1951 article, Johnson tried to borrow money from his friends to launch his magazine, but instead, he sought help from a loan company and raised $500 himself. Then he asked a printer to “stake him to a run of 5,000 copies.”

“Subscriptions! People said he wouldn’t be in business a year,” Hanna said. “They were virtually unobtainable.”

So the 24-year-old publisher “went all out for newsstand sales” for The Negro Digest, and his strategy paid off, Hanna said. By 1943, the magazine averaged 50,000 readers monthly.

Two years later, Johnson “got the idea a picture magazine would succeed,” and he launched Ebony, the reporter said. The Daily News didn’t publish a formal announcement as it did with his previous magazine, but it took notice of the new publication’s prestige and success. In 1946, it credited him as the “editor and publisher of Negro Digest and Ebony Magazine” in a short brief about his speech at an upcoming Chicago Negro Chamber of Commerce meeting.

It took just six years for Ebony to reach circulation of more than 450,000, Hanna said. A map in Johnson’s office showed his readers lived all over the United States and many abroad. 

In 1950, Johnson purchased his third magazine, Tan Confessions, “a romance type magazine containing articles on child care and homemaking and cooking recipes,” Hanna said.

What made Johnson such a success? The man himself credited his content, which emphasized “the positive accomplishments of the Negro, their dynamic doings.” From other publications, he said, one would assume that Black men and women never got married, had babies or won beauty contests. His magazines enjoyed a loyal following because readers could see themselves in a positive light on each page.

“Millions of them lead normal lives,” Johnson told Hanna. “Until we opened the field, [it] was little portrayed in the press.”

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