Founder and Publisher of Ebony and Jet Magazines Dies at 87
Pioneering Black publisher John H. Johnson, whose Ebony magazine countered stereotypical coverage of Blacks, died August 8. He was 87.
LaTrina Blair, promotions manager with Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Co., said Johnson died of heart failure at Northwestern Memorial Hospital after a long illness.
Born into an impoverished family in Arkansas, Johnson went into business with a $500 loan secured by his mother’s furniture and built a publishing and cosmetics empire that made him one of the wealthiest and most influential Black men in the United States.
He broke new ground by bringing positive portrayals of Blacks into a mass-market publication and encouraging corporations to use Black models in advertising aimed at Black consumers.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson said Johnson gave Blacks the first mirror to see themselves “as a people of dignity, a people with intelligence and beauty.
“John Johnson changed Black America for the good and we are all indebted to his example,” Jackson said. “A giant has gone to rest.”
Johnson built Ebony from a circulation of 25,000 on its first press run in November 1945 to a monthly circulation of more than 1.6 million last year, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation. Jet magazine, a newsweekly founded in 1951, has a circulation of more than 954,000. In addition to Ebony and Jet, Johnson Publishing owns Fashion Fair Cosmetics, a high-end line of cosmetics for Blacks, and JPC Book Division, which publishes books by Black authors.
Earl G. Graves, the publisher of Black Enterprise magazine, said Johnson accomplished a major feat when he launched his magazines.
“We have lost a legend, a pioneer, a visionary,” he said. “As an American, he was ahead of his time. Ebony is part of Americana now. Very few wouldn’t know what it is.”
Born Jan. 19, 1918 in Arkansas City, Ark., Johnson moved to Chicago with his family at age 15. After graduating from public schools, Johnson attended the University of Chicago and Northwestern University.
With Blacks’ income far below White Americans, the idea of a Black publishing company was widely dismissed. Civil rights leader Roy Wilkins advised Johnson to forget the publishing business and save himself a lot of disappointment; Wilkins later acknowledged he gave Johnson bad advice.
Ebony — named by Johnson’s wife, Eunice — was created to counter stereotypical portrayals of blacks in White-owned newspapers, magazines and broadcast media. The monthly magazine generally shuns critical articles about Black problems, instead highlighting the positive in Black life.
“We try to seek out good things, even when everything seems bad,” Johnson has said in explaining the magazine’s purpose. “We look for breakthroughs, we look for people who have made it, who have succeeded against the odds, who have proven somehow that long shots do come in.”
Harvard University Medical School psychiatry professor Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint was a frequent contributor to Ebony, writing articles on subjects from the sexual revolution and prostate cancer to gays and lesbians that he said Johnson thought were too controversial to leave to a regular beat writer.
“He was in one sense progressive, but also cautious,” Poussaint said. “He was conservative. And he felt a lot of Black families were conservative. And one of the ways to talk about (such subjects) was to have a physician or psychiatrist write the article.”
In addition to his wife, Johnson is survived by a daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, president of Johnson Publishing.
— The Associated Press
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