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John H. Johnson

John H. Johnson

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John Harold Johnson was an American businessman and publisher. He was the founder of the Johnson Publishing Company. In 1982 he became the first African-American to appear on the Forbes 400
Forbes 400
The Forbes 400 or 400 Richest Americans is a list published by Forbes Magazine magazine of the wealthiest 400 Americans, ranked by net worth. The list is published annually in September, and 2010 marks the 29th issue. The 400 was started by Malcom Forbes in 1982 and treats those in the list like...

.

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Biography


Johnson was born in rural Arkansas City
Arkansas City, Arkansas
Arkansas City is a town in Desha County, Arkansas, United States. The population was 366 at the 2010 census. The town is the county seat of Desha County.-Geography:According to the United States Census Bureau, the town has a total area of , all of it land....

, Arkansas
Arkansas
Arkansas is a state located in the southern region of the United States. Its name is an Algonquian name of the Quapaw Indians. Arkansas shares borders with six states , and its eastern border is largely defined by the Mississippi River...

, the grandson of slaves. When he was six years old, his father died in a sawmill accident and Johnson was raised by his mother and stepfather. He attended an overcrowded and segregated elementary school. Such was his love of learning, he repeated the eighth grade rather than discontinue his education, as there was no public high school for African Americans in his community.

After a visit with his mother to the Chicago World's Fair
Chicago World's Fair
Chicago World's Fair may refer to:*World's Columbian Exposition of 1893*Century of Progress Exposition of 1933...

, they decided that opportunities in the North were more plentiful than in the South. Facing poverty on every side in Arkansas during the Great Depression
Great Depression
The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression in the decade preceding World War II. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations, but in most countries it started in about 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s or early 1940s...

, the family moved to Chicago
Chicago
Chicago is the largest city in the US state of Illinois. With nearly 2.7 million residents, it is the most populous city in the Midwestern United States and the third most populous in the US, after New York City and Los Angeles...

, Illinois
Illinois
Illinois is the fifth-most populous state of the United States of America, and is often noted for being a microcosm of the entire country. With Chicago in the northeast, small industrial cities and great agricultural productivity in central and northern Illinois, and natural resources like coal,...

 in 1933 to try to find work and for Johnson to continue his education. Johnson entered all-black DuSable High School
DuSable High School
DuSable High School was a public high school in Chicago opened in the Bronzeville neighborhood in 1934. It was named after Chicago's first permanent non-native settler, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable. DuSable was built to accommodate the growing Phillips High School in the 1930s. The campus was...

 while his mother and stepfather scoured the city for jobs during the day. He looked for work after school and during the summer as well, but without success. His mother was not even able to find any domestic work, which was generally available when all else failed. To support themselves, the family applied for welfare, which they received for two years until Johnson's stepfather was finally able to obtain a position with the Works Progress Administration
Works Progress Administration
The Works Progress Administration was the largest and most ambitious New Deal agency, employing millions of unskilled workers to carry out public works projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads, and operated large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects...

 (WPA) and Johnson himself secured a job with the National Youth Administration
National Youth Administration
The National Youth Administration was a New Deal agency in the United States that focused on providing work and education for Americans between the ages of 16 and 24. It operated from 1935 to 1939 as part of the Works Progress Administration . Following the passage of the Reorganization Act of...

 (NYA).

Johnson endured much teasing and taunting at his high school for his ragged clothes and country ways, as he encountered something he never known existed: middle-class blacks. At DuSable High School some of his classmates included Nat King Cole
Nat King Cole
Nathaniel Adams Coles , known professionally as Nat King Cole, was an American musician who first came to prominence as a leading jazz pianist. Although an accomplished pianist, he owes most of his popular musical fame to his soft baritone voice, which he used to perform in big band and jazz genres...

, Redd Foxx
Redd Foxx
John Elroy Sanford , better known by his stage name Redd Foxx, was an American comedian and actor, best known for his starring role on the sitcom Sanford and Son.-Early life:...

 and future entrepreneur William Abernathy. This only fueled his already formidable determination to "make something of himself". Johnson's high school career was distinguished by the leadership qualities he demonstrated as student council
Student council
Student council is a curricular or extra-curricular activity for students within elementary and secondary schools around the world. Present in most public and private K-12 school systems across the United States, Canada and Australia these bodies are alternatively entitled student council, student...

 president and as editor of the school newspaper
Student newspaper
A student newspaper is a newspaper run by students of a university, high school, middle school, or other school. These papers traditionally cover local and, primarily, school or university news....

 and class yearbook
Yearbook
A yearbook, also known as an annual, is a book to record, highlight, and commemorate the past year of a school or a book published annually. Virtually all American, Australian and Canadian high schools, most colleges and many elementary and middle schools publish yearbooks...

. He attended high school during the day and studied self-improvement books at night. After he graduated in 1936, he was offered a tuition scholarship to the University of Chicago
University of Chicago
The University of Chicago is a private research university in Chicago, Illinois, USA. It was founded by the American Baptist Education Society with a donation from oil magnate and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller and incorporated in 1890...

, but he thought he would have to decline it, because he could not figure out a way to pay for expenses other than tuition. Because of his achievements in high school, Johnson was invited to speak at dinner held by the Urban League. When Harry Pace, the president of the Supreme Life Insurance Company, heard Johnson's speech, he was so impressed with the young man that he offered Johnson a job so that he would be able to use the scholarship.

Johnson began as an office boy at Supreme Life and within two years had become Pace's assistant. His duties included preparing a monthly digest of newspaper articles. Johnson began to wonder if other people in the community might not enjoy the same type of service. He conceived of a publication patterned after Reader's Digest
Reader's Digest
Reader's Digest is a general interest family magazine, published ten times annually. Formerly based in Chappaqua, New York, its headquarters is now in New York City. It was founded in 1922, by DeWitt Wallace and Lila Bell Wallace...

. His work at Supreme Life also gave him the opportunity to see the day-to-day operations of an African American-owned business and fostered his dream of starting a business of his own.

Once the idea of The Negro Digest
The Negro Digest
The Negro Digest was a popular African American magazine founded in November 1942 by John H. Johnson. It was first presented locally in Chicago, Illinois. The Negro Digest was quite similar to the Reader's Digest; however, it was aimed to target positive influences in the African American...

occurred to him, it began to seem like a "black gold mine", Johnson stated in his autobiography Succeeding against the Odds. Johnson remained enthusiastic even though he was discouraged on all sides from doing so. Only his mother, a woman with biblical faith and deep religious convictions, as well as a powerful belief in her son, supported his vision and allowed him to use her furniture as collateral for a $500 loan. He used this loan to publish the first edition of Negro Digest in 1942.

Johnson had a problem with distribution until he teamed up with Joseph Levy, a magazine distributor who was impressed with him. Levy provided valuable marketing
Marketing
Marketing is the process used to determine what products or services may be of interest to customers, and the strategy to use in sales, communications and business development. It generates the strategy that underlies sales techniques, business communication, and business developments...

 tips and opened the doors that allowed the new digest to reach newsstands in other urban centers. Within six months circulation had reached 50,000. This publication covered African American history, literature, arts, and cultural issues. After several decades of publication its name was changed to Black World. Although that publication achieved some success and at its height had a circulation of more than 100,000, it was dwarfed by Johnson's subsequent publication, Ebony
Ebony (magazine)
Ebony, a monthly magazine for the African-American market, was founded by John H. Johnson and has published continuously since the autumn of 1945...

, which was so popular that its initial run of 25,000 copies easily sold out. The articles in Ebony, which were designed to look like those in Life
Life (magazine)
Life generally refers to three American magazines:*A humor and general interest magazine published from 1883 to 1936. Time founder Henry Luce bought the magazine in 1936 solely so that he could acquire the rights to its name....

or Look
Look (American magazine)
Look was a bi-weekly, general-interest magazine published in Des Moines, Iowa from 1937 to 1971, with more of an emphasis on photographs than articles...

magazines, emphasized the achievements of successful African Americans. Photo essay
Photo essay
A photo-essay is a set or series of photographs that are intended to tell a story or evoke a series of emotions in the viewer. A photo essay will often show pictures in deep emotional stages. Photo essays range from purely photographic works to photographs with captions or small notes to full text...

s about current events and articles about race relations were also included in the magazine. Initially focused on the rich and famous in the African American community, Johnson expanded the reporting to include issues such as "the white problem in America", African American militancy, crimes by African Americans against African Americans, civil rights legislation, freedom rides and marches
Activism
Activism consists of intentional efforts to bring about social, political, economic, or environmental change. Activism can take a wide range of forms from writing letters to newspapers or politicians, political campaigning, economic activism such as boycotts or preferentially patronizing...

, and other aspects of segregation and discrimination. Professional historians were recruited for the magazine's staff so that the contributions of African Americans to the history of the United States could be adequately documented. African American models
Model (person)
A model , sometimes called a mannequin, is a person who is employed to display, advertise and promote commercial products or to serve as a subject of works of art....

 were used in the magazine's advertisements and a conscious effort was made to portray positive aspects of African American life and culture. Everything in the magazine was addressed to the African American consumer. Johnson maintained that Ebony's success was due to the positive image of African Americans that it offered.

In 1950, Johnson launched Tan (a true confessions-type magazine). In 1951, Jet
Jet (magazine)
Jet is an American weekly marketed toward African-American readers, founded in 1951 by John H. Johnson of Johnson Publishing Company in Chicago, Illinois...

, a weekly news digest, began. Later publications included African American Stars and Ebony Jr., a children's magazine. Although all of the magazines achieved a measure of success, none was able to compete with Ebony, which in its 40th year of publication had a circulation of 2,300,000 and was the primary reason that Johnson was considered one of the 400 richest individuals in the United States. In 1972, he was named publisher of the year by the major magazine publishers in the United States.

Johnson expanded his business interests to areas other than his magazines. He became chairperson and chief executive officer of the Supreme Life Insurance Company. He developed a line of cosmetics
Cosmetics
Cosmetics are substances used to enhance the appearance or odor of the human body. Cosmetics include skin-care creams, lotions, powders, perfumes, lipsticks, fingernail and toe nail polish, eye and facial makeup, towelettes, permanent waves, colored contact lenses, hair colors, hair sprays and...

, purchased three radio station
Radio station
Radio broadcasting is a one-way wireless transmission over radio waves intended to reach a wide audience. Stations can be linked in radio networks to broadcast a common radio format, either in broadcast syndication or simulcast or both...

s, and started a book publishing company, and a television production company. He served on the board of directors of several major businesses, such as the Greyhound Corporation
Greyhound Corporation
The Greyhound Corporation was the parent company of the U.S. operations of Greyhound Lines. Greyhound Lines, Inc., was spun off from the parent corporation in 1987. Greyhound Corporation, a diversified company based in Phoenix, Arizona -- producer of Dial Soap and Armour meat products, later...

, and received numerous honors and awards for his achievements, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, usually abbreviated as NAACP, is an African-American civil rights organization in the United States, formed in 1909. Its mission is "to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to...

's Spingarn Medal
Spingarn Medal
The Spingarn Medal is awarded annually by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for outstanding achievement by an African American....

 in 1966 for his contributions in the area of race relations.

In 1993, Johnson published his autobiography wherein he states "if it could happen to a Black boy from Arkansas it could happen to anyone". This publication celebrated the 50th anniversary of his publishing company.

In 1995, Johnson received the Communication Award on the occasion of Ebony magazine's 50th anniversary. Alfred C. Sykes, the chairman of the Center for Communication and president of Hearst Media Technology said "Mr. Johnson is a role model for many young people today, an example of how hard work, commitment and belief in oneself can lead to outstanding achievement. He rose from disadvantaged circumstances to achieve success in both business and national service during a time when great obstacles were placed in his path."

Because of his influential position in the African American community, Johnson was invited by the US government to participate in several international missions. In 1959, he accompanied the vice president of the United States on a mission to Russia
Russia
Russia or , officially known as both Russia and the Russian Federation , is a country in northern Eurasia. It is a federal semi-presidential republic, comprising 83 federal subjects...

 and Poland
Poland
Poland , officially the Republic of Poland , is a country in Central Europe bordered by Germany to the west; the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south; Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania to the east; and the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian exclave, to the north...

. He was appointed special ambassador to represent the United States at the independence ceremonies in the Ivory Coast in 1961 and in Kenya
Kenya
Kenya , officially known as the Republic of Kenya, is a country in East Africa that lies on the equator, with the Indian Ocean to its south-east...

 in 1963. Over the years Johnson had devoted a portion of several issues of Ebony to articles relating to African independence movements
African independence movements
The African Independence Movements took place in the 20th century, when a wave of struggles for independence in European-ruled African territories were witnessed....

, but in August 1976 he dedicated an entire special issue to the subject "Africa
Africa
Africa is the world's second largest and second most populous continent, after Asia. At about 30.2 million km² including adjacent islands, it covers 6% of the Earth's total surface area and 20.4% of the total land area...

, the Continent of the Future."

In 1996, President Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton
William Jefferson "Bill" Clinton is an American politician who served as the 42nd President of the United States from 1993 to 2001. Inaugurated at age 46, he was the third-youngest president. He took office at the end of the Cold War, and was the first president of the baby boomer generation...

 bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Presidential Medal of Freedom
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is an award bestowed by the President of the United States and is—along with thecomparable Congressional Gold Medal bestowed by an act of U.S. Congress—the highest civilian award in the United States...

 on Johnson. In 1997 Johnson was inducted into the Junior Achievement
Junior Achievement
Junior Achievement or JA or JA Worldwide is a non-profit youth organization that was founded in 1919 by Horace A. Moses, Theodore Vail, and senator Winthrop M. Crane. JA focuses on educating kids in K-12 about the free enterprise system...

 National Business Hall of Fame. In early 2001, Johnson was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame. The founder, publisher, chairman and CEO of the largest African-American publishing company in the world advised the audience to, "Convince people it is in their best interest to help you." By that year, Johnson had received other awards, including the Horatio Alger Award and The Wall Street Journal Dow Jones Entrepreneurial Excellence Award. He held the distinction of having been the first African American placed on Forbes' list of 400 wealthiest Americans. He had also been awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff
University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff
The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff is a historically black university located in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, United States. Founded in 1873, it is the oldest HBCU and the second oldest public institution in the state of Arkansas . UAPB is a member school of the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund...

, Harvard University
Harvard University
Harvard University is a private Ivy League university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, established in 1636 by the Massachusetts legislature. Harvard is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and the first corporation chartered in the country...

, the University of Southern California
University of Southern California
The University of Southern California is a private, not-for-profit, nonsectarian, research university located in Los Angeles, California, United States. USC was founded in 1880, making it California's oldest private research university...

, Carnegie Mellon University
Carnegie Mellon University
Carnegie Mellon University is a private research university in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States....

, Eastern Michigan University
Eastern Michigan University
Eastern Michigan University is a comprehensive, co-educational public university located in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Ypsilanti is west of Detroit and eight miles east of Ann Arbor. The university was founded in 1849 as Michigan State Normal School...

, and Wayne State University
Wayne State University
Wayne State University is a public research university located in Detroit, Michigan, United States, in the city's Midtown Cultural Center Historic District. Founded in 1868, WSU consists of 13 schools and colleges offering more than 400 major subject areas to over 32,000 graduate and...

.

Johnson Publishing Company also has a book division and employs more than 2,600 people, with sales of over $388 million. In addition, Johnson Publishing owns Fashion Fair Cosmetics (the world's number one makeup and skin care company for women of color), and Supreme Beauty products (hair care for men and women), and is involved in television production and produces the Ebony Fashion Fair (the world's largest traveling fashion show) which has donated over $47 million to charity. The show visits more than 200 cities in the United States, Canada
Canada
Canada is a North American country consisting of ten provinces and three territories. Located in the northern part of the continent, it extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and northward into the Arctic Ocean...

 and the Caribbean
Caribbean
The Caribbean is a crescent-shaped group of islands more than 2,000 miles long separating the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, to the west and south, from the Atlantic Ocean, to the east and north...

.

Johnson served on the boards of directors
Board of directors
A board of directors is a body of elected or appointed members who jointly oversee the activities of a company or organization. Other names include board of governors, board of managers, board of regents, board of trustees, and board of visitors...

 of Dillard's Inc.; First Commercial Bank, Little Rock; Dial Corporation; Zenith Radio Corporation; and Chrysler Corporation. He was a Brother of the Alpha Phi Alpha
Alpha Phi Alpha
Alpha Phi Alpha is the first Inter-Collegiate Black Greek Letter fraternity. It was founded on December 4, 1906 at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Its founders are known as the "Seven Jewels". Alpha Phi Alpha developed a model that was used by the many Black Greek Letter Organizations ...

 Fraternity.

On August 8, 2005, Johnson died of congestive heart failure
Congestive heart failure
Heart failure often called congestive heart failure is generally defined as the inability of the heart to supply sufficient blood flow to meet the needs of the body. Heart failure can cause a number of symptoms including shortness of breath, leg swelling, and exercise intolerance. The condition...

. People who remembered his career considered his decision to publish Emmett Till
Emmett Till
Emmett Louis "Bobo" Till was an African-American boy who was murdered in Mississippi at the age of 14 after reportedly flirting with a white woman. Till was from Chicago, Illinois visiting his relatives in the Mississippi Delta region when he spoke to 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, the married...

's open casket photograph his greatest moment. Michigan
Michigan
Michigan is a U.S. state located in the Great Lakes Region of the United States of America. The name Michigan is the French form of the Ojibwa word mishigamaa, meaning "large water" or "large lake"....

 congressman Charles Diggs
Charles Diggs
Charles Coles Diggs, Jr. was an African-American politician from the U.S. state of Michigan. Diggs was an early member of the civil rights movement, having been present at the murder trial of Emmett Till and elected the first chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.Diggs resigned from the...

 recalled that for the emotion the image stimulated, it was "probably one of the greatest media products in the last 40 or 50 years".

External links