John Harold Johnson was one of the most significant businessman and publisher of United States. Though early years of his life were quite difficult and tricky, he later became the proud founder of the famous Johnson Publishing Company, the largest black-owned publishing company in the world. Also, Johnson was the very first African-American to appear in the list of 400 richest Americans (Forbes 400) in the year 1982. A proud recipient of numerous awards that spanned decades, Johnson was acknowledged for his outstanding work and contribution. He was also awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor by the then President, Bill Clinton.
John Harold Johnson Childhood & Early Life
John H. Johnson was born on January 19, 1918 in rural Arkansas City, Arkansas. When Johnson was just six years old, his father passed away in a sawmill accident. Therefore, he was brought up by his mother and step-father. Initially, he went to an elementary school which was quite congested and segregated. Since his community did not have any African-American high school, Johnson repeated his eighth grade rather than quitting the education. He and his family suffered tough times and Great Depression during the years in Arkansas. They realized that there were many opportunities in the north in comparison to the south after visiting Chicago World’s Fair and thus, shifted base to Chicago, Illinois, in 1933 in a hope to find work. While Johnson got admitted in the DuSable High School, his mother and stepfather searched for jobs in the city. Johnson too looked for jobs after school. Unfortunately, they did not find any, thus to support the family they applied for welfare. They received the same after two years. However, by then, his step father had secured a position in Works Progress Administration (WPA). Johnson too by this time secured a job with the National Youth Administration (NYA).
In the high school which contained “all-black” students, Johnson experienced great hardship as he was badly teased and taunted for his worn-out clothes and country ways. These events charged him even more with his already existing determination to “make something of himself”. His high school career marked his leadership qualities, as he served as the president of student council and as an editor of the school’s newspaper and class yearbook. In 1936, he graduated and was offered a tuition scholarship to the University of Chicago. But Johnson thought of not taking the offer as there was no source to pay for expenses other than tuitions. At the same time, seeing his achievements in high school, he was invited to a give a speech at the dinner hosted by the Urban League. After hearing the speech of Johnson, Harry Pace, the president of the Supreme Life Insurance Company was so much so impressed that he proposed Johnson a job, so that Johnson could make use of the scholarship being offered to him.
Johnson commenced working at Supreme Life as an office boy and within two years became Pace’s assistant. The work of the Johnson included preparing a monthly digest of newspaper articles. Johnson thought that each one in the society might not like and enjoy the same type of service. Therefore, Johnson conceived of a publication which was patterned on the lines of Reader’s Digest. His duties at the Supreme Life Insurance offered him great opportunity to look into the daily operations of an African-American owned business. It also inspired Johnson to start his own business. Despite of being discouraged from all the sides, his enthusiasm remained quite high. In this difficult time, his mother continued to support him to the fullest carrying the biblical faith and deep religious convictions in her heart. His mother’s strong belief in Johnson supported his vision greatly. Using the furniture as collateral to gain a loan of $500, Johnson soon came out with the first edition of the magazine named “The Negro Digest”, in 1942.
However, just as we know, success doesn’t depend only on the publication of the magazine; it rather is equally dependent on distribution for it is with distribution that a magazine actually reaches people and the success is marked. Johnson initially faced problem in distribution until Joseph Levy joined him. A magazine distributor who was highly impressed with Johnson, Levy introduced valuable tips on marketing and offered ways to expand the reach of the new digest in other urban centers. The reach of the magazine touched 50,000 within six months itself. The content of the magazine included African American history, literature, arts, and cultural issues. After many decades of publication, its name was changed to “Black World”. Though the magazine gained extreme popularity and had a circulation of over 100,000, it yet remained incomparable with Johnson’s following publication named “Ebony magazine”, which was so much popular that its starting 25,000 copies were easily sold out. The articles in the same were designed to offer a view of those in LIFE or Look magazines. This magazine also emphasized greatly on the achievements of successful African-Americans. The content of the magazine also had photo essays on current events and articles based on the race relations.
In the starting editions of the “Ebony”, rich and popular people in the African American community were mainly focused. Thereafter, issues like “the white problem in America”, African American militancy, crimes by African Americans against African Americans, civil rights legislation, freedom rides and marches, and other aspects of segregation and discrimination were also included in the editions. Johnson appointed trained historians as the staff of the magazine to ensure that the contribution of African-American to the history of America could be documented. Such was his intensity towards displaying the positive aspects of life and culture of African-Americans that Johnson used African-American models for the magazine’s advertisements. In short, the entire magazine was wholly and solely addressed to the African American buyers only. The major reason for the great success of the Ebony was because it maintained positive image of the African-American. Jonson launched another magazine named “Tan” which was a true confession-type of a magazine in 1950, followed by “Jet magazine” in 1951. “Jet” was a weekly news digest. Later, Johnson published African=American Stars and Ebony Jr. (for children). In spite of the fact that all the publications founded by Johnson were quite successful, they were far behind the success level of Ebony.
Peak of His Career
Amazingly, in the 40th year of the publication of the Ebony magazine, it had a circulation of 2,300,000. Primarily for the same reason, Johnson was named in the 400 richest people in the United States. Also, as Johnson had a positive image in the community of African-American, he was invited by the government of United States to take part in various international missions. Therefore in 1959, he went on a mission to Russia and Poland with the then Vice President of U.S. With the passing years, Johnson had given a portion of many issues of Ebony to articles based on African independence movements. Johnson, in August 1976, devoted a whole special issue to the topic “Africa, the Continent of the Future”
Once his business fared well, Johnson stepped out of his comfort zone and started thinking of expanding his business. He became chairperson and chief executive officer of the same company he served as an office boy, Supreme Life Insurance Company. Later, Johnson established a cosmetics line, brought three radio stations, and commenced a book publishing company and also a television production company. Johnson also served on the board of directors of many big businesses like the Greyhound Corporation, Dillard's Inc, First Commercial Bank, Little Rock, Dial Corporation, Zenith Radio Corporation, and Chrysler Corporation. Jonson published his autobiography in 1993 and with the same celebrated the 50th anniversary of his publishing company.
Awards & Honors
Johnson received lot of honors and awards for his achievements during his lifetime. In 1961, Johnson was appointed as the special ambassador and represented U.S at the independence ceremonies in the Ivory Coast, followed by Kenya in 1963. In 1966, he received the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Spingarn Medal for his contributions in the field of race relations. Johnson, in 1972, was also named as publisher of the year by the major magazine publishers in the United States. In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the Ebony magazine, Johnson was given the communication award. The following year, Johnson became the proud recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was awarded to him by the then President Bill Clinton. In 1997, Johnson was included in the Junior Achievement National Business Hall of Fame and in 2001, into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame. Johnson was honored with the NAACP's Spingarn Medal, the Horatio Alger Award, and The Wall Street Journal Dow Jones Entrepreneurial Excellence Award. Johnson also became the first African American to be named in 400 Forbes. Johnson was awarded with honorary doctorates by the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Harvard University, the University of Southern California, Carnegie Mellon University, Eastern Michigan University, and Wayne State University.
John H. Johnson met Eunice Walker in 1940 while she was attending Loyola University Chicago. The two married after she earned her master's degree the following year.
John H. Johnson died on August 8, 2005 suffering from congestive heart failure.