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Heartbroken over John H. Johnson’s legacy

The former Johnson Publishing Company building at 820 S. Michigan Ave. in Chicago. | Photo by John H. White/Sun-Times file photo

My “Ebony Cookbook” is tattered from a lifetime of love.

But I can’t bear to replace it.

It holds the most cherished memories of raising my family through the good times and the bad.

That’s the legacy of Johnson Publishing Company. More than a media conglomerate, Johnson Publishing Company represents the achievements of a generation of black people who took what little they had and made something big out of it.

Although the iconic publishing company has been stumbling for a while, the announcement that the company founded by John H. Johnson has ended its 77-year run with a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing stings.

“This was a place, a titan of the industry, a symbol of black hope and success, and to see it this way, and see all the pieces fall away is distressing, said Lee Bey, writer and senior lecturer at the School of the Art Institute.

“All these institutions — George Johnson and Johnson Products, Baldwin Ice Cream and Sivart Mortgage Company (founded by Dempsey Travis in the 1950s) — marked our ascension here in Chicago. It was the promise land where you could get off the plow. You could come to Chicago and be anything. For these companies not to be as successful in the second and third generation as in the first, lumped on the diminishing population in Chicago, is a sea change, and sometimes these changes are uncomfortable,” Bey said.

John H. Johnson, publisher of Johnson Publish Co., and his iconic magazines, including Ebony, Jet and Ebony Man, on Nov. 9, 1992, with his daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, who eventually became the company’s CEO, in the firm’s Chicago headquarters. | Mark Elias/AP file photo

Haki Madhubuti, poet, writer, lecturer and founder of Third World Press, the largest independent black-owned press in the U.S., called it a “sad day.”

“One cannot quantify or really deal with the importance of Johnson Publishing Company throughout the world community in terms of its critical place in the lives of black people,” Madhubuti said.

“What helped put me on the map as a poet and a writer was my association with one of [Ebony’s] top editors, Hoyt W. Fuller, and his masterful editorship of Negro Digest and Black World magazine. Just about every black intellectual writer, poet in the country appeared under his editorship,” he said.

“It was a sad day when they had to sell the building. It was a sad day when they had to downsize to the point the magazine was being edited outside of Chicago and ceased to be the international publication that its founder had brought into existence,” he said.

Like many other media outlets, Johnson Publishing Company, which included Jet Magazine, Ebony and Fashion Fair Cosmetics — all iconic brands, has struggled to regain its customer base that was enticed away as their competitors became more inclusive.

“I grew up with Ebony on the coffee table in a small town outside Memphis — Bolivar, Tenn.,” said Lynn Norment, a former Ebony editor.

“It meant so much to us. It was our connection to the world and that is how I knew there was a life outside of Bolivar. I read about business people, corporate people, celebrities and religious leaders across the country,” she said.

“It was very inspiring and gave me something to aspire to. Having worked there for 30 years, now I realize I was there during the heydays. This bankruptcy hurts me on a personal level,” she said.

The decline of Johnson Publishing has been a slow, painful process that began with the selling of the South Michigan headquarters in 2010. It was the first downtown office building designed by a black architect and the first office building owned by a black businessman.

In 2016, Ebony and Jet were sold to an equity firm in Texas. A year later, the company’s money woes were put on full blast when writers, outraged over the lack of payment for their work, sued Ebony. The magazine agreed to pay nearly $80,000 to the freelancers to settle the lawsuit.

For those of us who grew up in awe of the powerful brand, the magazine’s public feud with writers and photographers felt like a betrayal and a stain on Johnson’s legacy.

Johnson’s bankruptcy isn’t the first and won’t be the last. After all, the Chicago Sun-Times went through bankruptcy reorganization in 2009, and we survived.

Still, watching the dismantling of this historic company is like watching someone lose their mama’s house after all her sweat and tears.

This sudden loss hits home.

“We must understand that we would not be the people we are today without the insightful input from Johnson Publishing,” Madhubuti said.