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Johnson Publishing Co., the ex-publisher of Ebony and Jet, files for bankruptcy

The Johnson Publishing Company logo is on the lobby wall.| Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times file photo

Chicago’s historic Johnson Publishing Company has filed for bankruptcy, court records show.

The Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition was filed late Tuesday afternoon by the company once responsible for Ebony and Jet magazines. It sold the magazines in 2016, meaning Tuesday’s move does not affect the publications.

“This decision was not easy, nor should it have been,” the company said in a press release announcing the move. “Johnson Publishing Company is an iconic part of American and African American history since our founding in 1942, and the company’s impact on society cannot be overstated.”

The company said it “was caught in a tidal wave of marketplace changes and business issues which, despite exhaustive efforts, could not be overcome.” It said it hoped to maximize the value of its assets through a sale which would benefit its creditors.

The filing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Chicago is a painful reminder of how far the company has fallen since its heyday as one of the most recognizable African American brands in the nation.

The late John H. Johnson, the company’s founder, had turned a $500 loan borrowed against his mother’s furniture into one of the country’s most successful African-American-owned corporations.

His Ebony and Jet magazines inspired countless black youths — former President Barack Obama among them — and he used his position to donate millions to African American educational and civil rights causes.

Ebony began publishing in November 1945 with a promise “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.”

Jet followed in 1951. The two magazines portrayed successful blacks — doctors, lawyers, businessmen and black celebrities — in a glossy magazine format in an era when such publications were typically filled with images of white, fair-haired men and women.

The final print edition of JET magazine on June 9, 2014 with a cover declaring it “An American Icon” is displayed with vintage copies of the magazine at the offices of Johnson Publishing Company, which publishes the magazine in Chicago. | File photo illustration by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Johnson sought to present a dignified, well-rounded portrayal of African-Americans that would inspire future generations. He succeeded in creating a record of black culture considered by some to be more authoritative than the Library of Congress or any encyclopedia.

The publishing icon died at the age of 87 in 2005, six decades after Ebony hit the stands. Johnson’s Chicago funeral drew several civil rights leaders, as well as former President Bill Clinton.

Obama, who wouldn’t win the White House for another three years, recalled at the time the inspiration he drew from Johnson’s magazines.

“When I was growing up, basically the only black men on television were criminals or Flip Wilson dressed in drag as a character called Geraldine,” the future president said in 2005.

Stories in Ebony and Jet helped Obama and others aspire to lofty positions, he said.

“It gave you a sense that strong, capable black men were out there and you didn’t have to assume that your fate was automatically working in some menial job or getting involved in crime,” Obama said.

The magazines also took crucial editorial stands. In 1955, Jet published an open-coffin photograph of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago boy who was slaughtered by white men in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The photo’s publication was credited with galvanizing the American civil rights movement.

Accepting life’s disadvantages as challenges to be met, John H. Johnson adhered to his philosophy of optimism and created multimillion-dollar publishing empire that includes Ebony and Jet magazines. | Sun-Times files

In Ebony’s first issue, an editorial commented on fair employment legislation following World War II.

“The Negro soldier and sailor want to come home to an America that has wiped out the ‘white supremacy’ practices which meant the downfall of Hitlerism in Germany,” it said. “They want to come home to a United States where a job no longer has a color.”

The years since Johnson’s death have been difficult for the company he left behind. In 2010, it sold its home of nearly 40 years — its building at 820 South Michigan — to Columbia College Chicago. The company moved into the building after its completion in 1972.

In his biography, Johnson wrote of having to buy the property through a proxy because of unwillingness to sell to an African American.

Still, Johnson Publishing asserted that its building — designed by architect John Moutoussamy — was the first important Chicago structure designed by an African American since Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable’s cabin two centuries earlier.

The building became a centerpiece for black culture and trends during the heyday of Ebony and Jet — a destination for celebrities and politicians seeking to align themselves with the Johnson family.

In 2014, Jet ceased print editions and became a digital-only publication. In 2016, Ebony and Jet were sold to Clear View Group, an equity firm in Texas. Johnson Publishing then turned its attention to its archives and cosmetics business, Fashion Fair Cosmetics.