John H. Johnson: The Rise and Fall of a Pioneering Media Magnate

By Christian Glassiognon and Lynn Wilson

Ebony and Jet Magazine, once a staple on every coffee table and kept as keepsakes to preserve African American history, were a symbol of Black excellence and a showcase of Black culture and community. Both of these magazines were published by the Johnson Publishing Company, a company itself that was once one of the most powerful, influential publications that was ever African-American owned. Unfortunately, like many of their predecessors, they were not able to transition to the digital media space.

The story of the once-legendary Johnson Publishing Company (JPC) starts with the company’s founders John H. Johnson and his wife Eunice W. Johnson. John Harold Johnson (January 19, 1918, to August 8, 2005) was born in Arkansas City, Arkansas to Leroy and Gertrude Johnson. He was raised by his mother and stepfather James Williams after Leroy died in a sawmill accident. Johnson loved education and attended an overcrowded and segregated elementary school; he repeated the 8th grade. Because of his educational challenges in Arkansas and after an illuminating visit to the Chicago World Fair with his mother, his family moved to Chicago in 1933 for better work and schooling. He attended Wendell Phillips High School, a school full of middle-class African Americans, a group of people that at the time were foreign to Johnson. He later transferred to DuSable High where he was surrounded by classmates who excelled, such as Nat King Cole, Redd Foxx, and William Abernathy, an environment that drove Johnson to excel as well. And excel Johnson did, while attending high school during the day and studying self-improvement books during the night, Johnson was student council president and editor of the school newspaper and yearbook. He graduated with honors in 1936 and was offered a scholarship to the University of Chicago.

After graduating from high school, Johnson went to work for the Supreme Life Insurance Company while attending the University of Chicago. While with Supreme, he was given the job of compiling weekly news clippings for his boss, which eventually gave him the idea for his first publication, Negro Digest in 1942. Johnson’s mom provided a $500 dollar loan and teaming up with Joseph Levy, a magazine distributor, Johnson began his first campaign. Using the Supreme Life mailing list, he mailed as many $2 mailing offers as he could and received 3,000 customers. He then used the money from his new customers to print the first copy of Negro Digest in November of 1942. By the next year, he would have 50,000 copies in circulation, a smashing success. Johnson also later became chairman and CEO of Supreme Life Insurance, where he had begun his career.

Johnson then shifted his focus to covering African American communities, culture, and achievements and Ebony was born in 1945, eventually sun-setting the distribution of the Negro Digest. Jet followed in 1951 as the “Weekly Negro News Magazine,” it focused on African American entertainers, community issues, public figures, and promoting African American women’s beauty. At Ebony’s peak, there were more than 1.3 million copies.

JPC’s reach peaked from the ‘60s to the ’80s as they expanded into cosmetics, fashion, and media. The Ebony/Jet Showcase was a nationally syndicated show that captivated 73 percent of US TV households. It was by far the #1 Black-oriented interview and entertainment show at the time. A radio station was bought and renamed WJPC in 1973, and was the first Black-owned radio station in Chicago. Eunice Johnson, John’s wife, also organized and ran a traveling fashion show, Ebony Fashion Fair that funded scholarships across the United States and Canada.

The JPC headquarters, 820 S. Michigan Ave., was as historic as the company itself. Designed by John Moutossamy, it was the first African American designed building on the Chicago skyline and the first African American owned building in the Chicago downtown area.

John H. Johnson died August 8, 2005, leaving the company in the hands of his daughter Linda Johnson-Rice. Unfortunately, she and many other publishers did not anticipate the rise of digital media and the changes that would need to be made in order to continue running a profitable business. In May 2009, R.R. Donnelley & Sons took a mortgage against the company’s headquarters due to its nonpayment of the magazine’s printing bill; the total amount neared $12 million dollars. Rice was forced to sell the building, but the JPC logo and its publication names have remained on the building and they are now apartments. Additionally, in 2015, the company began to sell the Ebony/Jet photo archives to relieve debt. In 2019, JPC filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy, revealing that the company had close to 999 creditors. Mellody Hobson and her husband, Star Wars creator George Lucas, petitioned to take possession of the Ebony Photo Archives as collateral for the $12 million dollar loan..