On November 1st 1945 an enterprising 27 year old African American male changed the history of journalism. African American soldiers were returning from the battlefields of Europe, the scene of the latest European tribal conflict. They had been involved in what was supposedly the fight for democracy, however when they returned home from making life safe for Europeans they were still second class citizens in their own country. They were still living under Jim Crow rule where they could be lynched because a white person did not like the way they walked or talked. Nothing much had changed for African Americans after they returned home from World War 11. The publication of Ebony Magazine on November 1st 1945 would herald a new era for African Americans and eventually all other Africans across the globe.
John Harold Johnson was born in Arkansas on January 19th, 1918. As a descendant of enslaved Africans living in the white supremacist Southern United States it is hardly surprising that his father, Leroy Johnson was killed in a sawmill accident when he was eight years old. Countless numbers of African Americans had been “accidentally” killed at their worksites, safety standards were not important. The Johnson family, now mother and son had to survive without the male adult presence. Like many African women before her, Eunice Johnson set about surviving and rearing her only child. Determined to give her child opportunities that he would never have in Arkansas, (there were no high schools for African Americans) Gertrude Johnson worked as a washer woman and cook to save the money for their fare north to Chicago. In July 1933, the Johnsons moved to Chicago where John H. Johnson attended Dusable High School, Chicago’s first high school built for African American students, and graduated in 1936. What amazing coincidence that the man who is considered the African American poster person for entrepreneurship in Chicago attended a high school named in honour of Jean Baptiste Pointe Dusable, the Haitian born African man who was the founder of Chicago.
On graduating from high school with honours, Johnson was invited to speak at the Chicago Urban League luncheon for outstanding high school students. He met one of the featured speakers, Harry H. Pace, president of the largest African American owned business in the USA, Supreme Life Insurance Company. Pace offered Johnson a job, encouraging him to work part-time and attend university part-time.
Beginning work as an “office boy” at Supreme Life Insurance Company in 1936, by 1939 Johnson was the editor of Supreme’s monthly newspaper, “The Guardian.” In 1942, Johnson was given the task of compiling a weekly digest of major news items about African Americans gleaned from various magazines and newspapers. Realising that there were no magazines that highlighted African American culture and achievement, Johnson seized the opportunity to publish a commercially viable monthly magazine catering to African Americans.
Johnson planned to use the mailing list of the Supreme Life Insurance Company to solicit subscriptions for his magazine and needed a $500.00 loan. Upon being refused a loan from the First National Bank of Chicago, Johnson approached the Citizens Loan Corporation and secured a $500.00 loan by using his mother’s furniture as collateral. On November 1st 1942, the Negro Digest was published and Johnson Publishing Company Inc. was established. The Johnson Publishing Company Inc. went from strength to strength with the publishing of Ebony Magazine launched on November 1st 1945,
Jet Magazine launched on November 1st 1951 and several other magazines including Ebony Man in 1985 and Tan Magazine, a true confessions type magazine in 1950. Jet, a weekly news magazine has had such an influence on African American life that African Americans would frequently say; “If it wasn’t in Jet, it didn’t happen.” The publications of Johnson Publishing Corporation Inc. told the stories of African Americans when white American media either ignored or distorted the reality of African American life.
When Johnson launched Ebony Magazine on November 1st 1945 he could not have dreamt of the success of Johnson Publishing Company Inc. In his autobiography "Succeeding Against The Odds," published in 1989, Johnson wrote, “I never thought I would be rich. Never in my wildest dreams did l believe that Negro Digest would lead to the Johnson Publishing Company of today. If I'd dreamed then of the conglomerate of today, I probably would have been so intimidated, with my meager resources, that I wouldn't have had the courage to take the first step." The legendary Maya Angelou describing John H. Johnson said, “John Johnson had the vision of a William Randolph Hearst and the perseverance of the legendary hero, John Henry. With his gifts, he introduced an entire race to the beauty and the brilliance they already had. Through his magazines, we learned that we were poets and plumbers and preachers and pundits." African American celebrities were featured in the pages of the magazine as well as the lived reality for most African Americans who were being victimized by a white supremacist American culture. Ebony was the chronicler of African American life, the good, the bad and the ugly. Who can forget the image of Coretta Scott King comforting her five year old daughter Bernice at Dr King’s funeral? That image of Coretta dignified even in her grief gained photographer Moneta Sleet of Ebony Magazine a Pulitzer Prize. Ebony magazine was the training ground for many talented photographers and journalists who might otherwise never had an opportunity to practice their craft. Ebony and Jet played key roles in the Civil Rights movement. Johnsons Publications changed the colour and content of American media which had not cared to show positive images of African Americans.
Not only did Johnson influence generations of African Americans with his publications, that influence was felt as far away from Chicago as Stanleytown, Berbice in then British Guiana. Johnson Publications Inc. brought the lives of African Americans to us in the pages of Ebony, Jet and Tan magazines. These publications were part of our family while my mother and her siblings were elementary school students. The next generation, my siblings, cousins and I read about Lena Horne, Billy Eckstein, Nat Cole, Harry Belafonte etc in old Ebony and Jet magazines. We were fascinated with the large, dramatic photographs of glamorous men and women before we could even read the stories. Some of the stories we did read however, were far from glamorous. Reading about the murder of 14 year old Emmett Till, the terrorizing of Elizabeth Eckford and the Little Rock Nine, the imprisonment of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks’ arrest was a puzzle to us as children living in a culture where we did not experience overt racism. We were educated about the history and culture of African Americans as we read Ebony, Jet and Tan magazines. Tan magazine is no longer published but we continue to read Ebony and Jet magazines regularly, sharing information with the younger generation. It speaks volumes about the culture of North America that Ebony and Jet magazines remain relevant.
John H. Johnson transitioned to be with the ancestors on August 8th, 2005 but his legacy which he created and launched on November 1st 1945 lives on in the pages of Ebony magazine which continues to chronicle the lives of Africans and educate the world about the history of Africans.
Written in October 2007