Discovering John H. Johnson: An African-American media mogul

Reading time 7 min.
John H. Johnson
John H. Johnson

In his autobiography, Succeeding Against the Odds, John H. Johnson, an African American who overcame poverty to become one of the wealthiest businessmen in the United States, revealed what pleased him most in attaining success: “the greater the handicap, the greater the triumph.”

Johnson, born in 1918, rose from humble origins in the Mississippi River town of Arkansas City, Arkansas, to found the country’s largest African-American publishing empire and a variety of other business enterprises. He became a confidant of U. S. presidents of both political parties and served his country as a special envoy to several nations in Europe and Africa.

Johnson was the only child of Leroy Johnson and Gertrude Jenkins Johnson. His father was killed in a sawmill accident when he was 8 years old. The following year, 1927, his mother married James Williams, who worked as a bakery shop deliveryman. The family valued education highly and impressed its importance upon young Johnny (the name with which he was christened) during his formative years. For blacks in Arkansas City, public education ended at the eighth grade because there was no public high school for them, and laws mandating racial segregation prevented blacks from attending the high school for white students.

However, Johnson and his mother knew about greater educational opportunities in Chicago, Illinois. With money saved under a mattress, thanks to his mother’s several domestic jobs, Johnson and his mother boarded a train and became part of the African-American migration to Chicago in 1933. Johnson’s stepfather, James Williams, soon joined them and Johnson was enrolled in the city’s all black DuSable High School.

At first Johnson’s mother and stepfather found it difficult to obtain employment in Chicago in midst of the Great Depression, and for a while the family had to rely upon public welfare assistance. Eventually, both Johnson and his stepfather found work in federal New Deal jobs programs established under the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Despite the fact that John had proven himself to be an able student at DuSable, he was ridiculed by fellow students who saw his ragged clothes and unrefined “country” manners as ill-suited for middle-class African-American society. Johnson used the slights from other students as motivation to become a leader at DuSable, where he served as student council president, editor of the school newspaper and sales manager of the yearbook.

Johnson’s hard work and dedication to scholarship led to one of the crucial events in his life. As a high school senior he was honored at a luncheon sponsored by the Urban League, a community-based organization advocating economic empowerment of urban minorities. Among those in attendance was the keynote speaker, Harry H. Pace, president of the Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company. Following Pace’s speech Johnson approached Pace and told him how much he appreciated his remarks.

The insurance executive, who often helped talented black youths, complimented young Johnson and encouraged him to attend college. He gave Johnson a part-time job at the insurance company to supplement Johnson’s scholarship to the University of Chicago. Johnson was impressed by the success of Pace’s black-owned insurance firm and he eventually dropped his university studies to hone his skills as an entrepreneur. In 1941 he married Eunice Walker and assumed full-time work at Supreme Liberty Life. He later took courses at Northwestern University’s School of Commerce.

Among Johnson’s duties at Supreme Liberty Life was collection of news and information about black Americans and preparing a weekly digest for Pace. Johnson realized a business opportunity existed in the idea of a “Negro digest” that could be marketed and sold. In 1942 he used his mother’s furniture as collateral for a $500 loan to publish the first issue of Negro Digest, a magazine patterned after Reader’s Digest. Although there were format similarities between the two publications, Johnson noted in his autobiography that Reader’s Digest tended to be upbeat whereas Negro Digest spoke to an audience that was “angry, disillusioned and disappointed” with social inequities in the United States.

Johnson used a clever marketing scheme to jump-start Negro Digest. He asked 20,000 of Supreme Liberty Life’s policyholders for $2 to subscribe to the proposed magazine — and about 3,000 of them responded. Then, to get the magazine on newsstands, he persuaded 20 friends to visit newsstands and ask for it. After his friends bought the magazines, Johnson resold them. The marketing strategy was repeated in other cities, and within eight months Negro Digest reached $50,000 a month in sales.

In 1945 Johnson launched his second publication using a format made popular by the major picture magazine Life. Johnson’s wife, Eunice, named the publication Ebony. The entire 25,000-copy press run of Ebony’s first issue sold out. Johnson’s belief that African Americans craved a publication that would focus on black achievement and portray them in a positive manner was proven correct: 40 years after its founding, the glossy magazine had reached a circulation of 2.3 million.

Johnson created Jet in 1951 as a pocket-sized weekly magazine carrying news, society, entertainment and political information pertinent to African Americans. The growth of Johnson’s publications paralleled the emergence of the civil rights movement in the United States and chronicled its developments. Ebony’s pages were filled with success stories of African Americans in all walks of life, including education, jurisprudence, science and government. Johnson said Ebony’s purpose was to inspire its readers.

The magazine also addressed issues of racial discrimination and injustice in the United States. Johnson wanted a black readership, as The New York Times reported in a 1990 interview: Johnson was somewhat disappointed that 12 percent of Ebony and Jet’s readers were white, saying he wanted “to be king of the black hill, not the mixed hill.”

Johnson added other enterprises to his lucrative empire, including additional magazine ventures, book publishing, the Fashion Fair cosmetics line, several radio stations, and majority ownership of Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company, which he bought in 1980.

Johnson maintained a close relationship with his mother and never forgot that his business empire began with her willingness to put up her furniture as collateral to establish Negro Digest. She was vice president of the company and had a sixth floor suite in the Johnson Publishing Company building in Chicago where she “could watch her investment grow.” His stepfather, James Williams, was appointed superintendent of the building.

Despite the wide range and diversity of his business holdings, Johnson admitted his management style was hands-on and direct, with every detail of operations requiring his personal approval. While tasks may have been delegated, Johnson believed that his staff required daily monitoring and oversight to ensure optimum performance. Although he named his daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, president and chief operating officer in the late 1980s, he clearly remained in charge but asked “her opinion on decisions I plan to make.”

By 1990 Johnson’s personal wealth was estimated at $150 million. He was honored by President Bill Clinton with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1997, and in 2001 he was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame. Other awards and honors bestowed on Johnson include the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Spingarn Medal, the Horatio Alger Award — and the distinction of being the first African American to make the Forbes Magazine list of the 400 wealthiest Americans.

John Johnson’s contributions paved the way for the success of today’s African-American media moguls, including Oprah Winfrey, Black Entertainment Television’s founder Robert Johnson (no relation to John Johnson) and film producer Tyler Perry. The School of Communications at Howard University was named for Johnson following his $4 million gift to advance communications studies for black students.

Johnson’s business philosophy is summarized in one of his most often cited quotations: “Failure is a word I don’t accept.”

John H. Johnson died of congestive heart failure in August 2005 at age 87.

This essay is excerpted from the Living Book Beyond Dr. King: More Stories of African-American Achievement.

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Clint C. Wilson II
Clint C. Wilson II is professor of journalism and graduate professor of the John H. Johnson School of Communications at Howard University. He has taught at the University of Southern California, where he earned his doctorate, California State University, Los Angeles, and Pepperdine University. He is an expert on African-American news media, and his books on the subject include Racism, Sexism and the Media with Félix Gutiérrez and Lena M. Chao (2003, 3rd edition). He has written for magazines such as Journalism Educator and the Columbia Journalism Review, and for various news organizations, including the Associated Press and the Washington Post. He is a founder of the Black Journalists Association of Southern California.
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