With a $500 loan, this is how John Johnson built a media empire and became the first Black millionaire to appear on Forbes in 1982

Abu Mubarik January 04, 2023
John Johnson perusing the July 1950 issue of Ebony magazine. Credit: Neal Douglass/Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

John Johnson, founder of Ebony Magazine, is widely regarded as the most influential Black publisher in modern history. Before graduating from the university, he worked for a life insurance company that targeted African American customers. While with Supreme Life Insurance Company, he was given the job of compiling weekly news clippings for his boss, which eventually gave him the idea of a magazine for African-Americans. 

In 1942, he launched Negro Digest. Its first issue sold some 3,000 copies and subsequently grew to 50,000 monthly circulations. He subsequently launched Ebony, a general-interest magazine catering to an African American audience, in 1945.

Ebony’s initial pressrun of 25,000 copies was completely sold out. By the early 21st century, it had a circulation of some 1.7 million.” 

Johnson started his publishing business with a $500 loan against his mother’s furniture and $6,000 raised through charter subscriptions for the Negro Digest which later became Black World. In 1951, Johnson Publishing expanded again, with the creation of Jet, the world’s largest African American news weekly magazine (1951–2014).

Johnson capitalized on sales skills to land multiple advertisements that brought in massive revenue. His ad clients cut across white and black-owned companies. The first company he reportedly convinced to advertise in his magazines was Zenith, a radio manufacturer, and others quickly followed suit. 

Ebony earned acclaim and became revolutionary for its coverage of the civil rights movement and profiling of successful Black businesses, at a time when African-Americans were rarely covered in the press, unless it was for committing crimes. Naturally, it also became a forum for Black startups and businesses to advertise. For African-Americans, Ebony and Jet meant a lot; it reinforced positive images of themselves. The magazines could be found in almost any black-owned beauty parlor and barber shop across the country, where customers would typically read while waiting to be serviced. At some point, it is said that Ebony alone was reaching more than 40 percent of the nation’s black adults — a reach that was unmatched by any other general-interest magazine in the country.

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

In addition to publishing, Johnson owned Fashion Fair Cosmetics, a makeup and skincare company for black women and Supreme Beauty products, a hair care for men and women. He also owned three radio stations, a book publishing company and a television production company.

Johnson was born on January 19, 1918, in Arkansas City, Arkansas, to Leroy and Gertrude Johnson Williams. He is the grandson of slaves.

His father died in a sawmill accident and later moved to Chicago with his mother in 1933. He was enrolled in an all-black high school. Not only did he excel, but also became the president of his class and edited the school paper, according to the Guardian.

Aside from publishing and marketing, Johnson was involved in community and national-level politics. According to the historymakers, in 1957, Johnson accompanied then-Vice President Richard Nixon to nine African countries.

He was also President John F. Kennedy’s Special Ambassador to Ivory Coast’s independence ceremonies. He was also sent to Kenya for a similar purpose. What’s more, Johnson was appointed by President Nixon to the Commission for the Observance of the 25th Anniversary of the United Nations. 

Before his demise, he received several awards. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour by President Bill Clinton. Also, he received the Spingarn Medal for the Most Outstanding Black Publisher in History Award from the National Newspaper Publishers Association. He also received at least 30 honorary doctoral degrees from institutions and universities across America. 

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

Last Edited by:Sandra Appiah Updated: January 4, 2023


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