Celebrating Black History Month: John H. Johnson, Trailblazing Publisher
February is Black History Month and the U.S. Postal Service has issued a stamp in honor of John H. Johnson, the trailblazing publisher of Ebony, Jet and other magazines. Johnson overcame poverty and racism to build a business empire embracing magazines, radio stations, cosmetics and more. His magazines portrayed black people positively at a time when such representation was rare, and played an important role in the civil rights movement.
When he was unable to buy a land in downtown Chicago because of his skin color, he hired a white lawyer who bought the land in trust. As a result, Johnson became the first black person to build a major building in Chicago’s Loop, where Johnson Publishing still has its headquarters.
As Johnson’s influence, accomplishments, and fortune grew, he received many prizes and honors. He joined Vice President Richard Nixon on a goodwill tour of Africa and served as a Special United States Ambassador for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) awarded him its prestigious Spingarn Medal in 1966. Six years later, in 1972, his industry peers named him publisher of the year — a prize Johnson compared to winning an Oscar.
In presenting Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996, President Bill Clinton lauded him for giving hope to African-Americans during difficult times. A panel of experts polled by Baylor University in 2003 named Johnson “the greatest minority entrepreneur in American history.” That same year, Howard University named its journalism school after him.
At the time of his death in 2005, The New York Times wrote, He “used his mother's furniture as security for a $500 loan to start the business empire that eventually included Ebony and Jet magazines and that made him one of the nation's richest and most powerful black businessmen…
“He sometimes said he was in the business of inspiring people, heralding achievements like the first black woman to become a Rhodes scholar or the black man who sent three daughters through medical school. But his publications could also bristle with indignation over the sting of racial discrimination, as reflected by a 1965 cover: "The White Problem in America."
“The family lived on welfare, and then on what his stepfather earned in a New Deal public works program. Mr. Johnson got part-time work in the National Youth Administration, another New Deal initiative. He also starred academically at an all-black high school and was president of his class and editor of the school paper.
“When he graduated in 1936, he spoke at a dinner held by the Urban League. Harry Pace, president of the Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company, was so impressed that he offered him a job and a scholarship to attend the University of Chicago.”
He worked in the insurance industry and borrowed $500 from his mother to start the magazine. “He asked 20,000 of the company's policyholders for $2 to subscribe to what was still a nonexistent magazine. About 3,000 people did so. That June, he published Negro Digest, modeled on Reader's Digest.”
He had 20 friends ask for it at newsstand, which resulted in the news dealers wanting to sell the magazine. Within a year, Negro Digest had a circulation of 50,000.”
He liked the style of Life magazine and emulated it. He said that his goal was to "show not only the Negroes but also white people that Negroes got married, had beauty contests, gave parties, ran successful businesses, and did all the other normal things of life."The first 25,000 copies immediately sold out.
“In 1951, Johnson started Jet magazine which became the largest African-American news weekly. Jet was known for its featured female centerfold but like Ebony, it was a forum for airing black issues and concerns. In 1955, Jet galvanized African-Americans throughout the nation when it published the battered and bloated body of Emmett Till, the black teenager who was lynched in Mississippi for supposedly whistling at a white woman.”
The A. A. Rayner Funeral Home in Chicago received Till's body, and upon arrival, Till’s mother decided to have an open casket funeral, saying "There was just no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see.” Tens of thousands of people lined the street outside the mortuary to view Till's body. Photographs of his mutilated corpse circulated around the country, notably appearing in Johnson’s Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender. According to The Nation and Newsweek, Chicago's black community was "aroused as it has not been over any similar act in recent history".
The U.S. Postal Service has recognized the achievements of prominent African-Americans through the Black Heritage series since 1978. The stamp honoring Johnson is the 35th stamp in that series, which highlights outstanding individuals who helped shape American culture.
The stamp, designed by Postal Service art director Howard Paine, features a color photograph of Johnson taken by Bachrach Studios. The photographer was David McCann.
It is being issued as a Forever® stamp. Forever stamps are always equal in value to the current First-Class Mail one-ounce rate
Visit your local library for more resources on this topic. Here are some additional resources:
Publishing history of Ebony recounted by Langston Hughes in the 20th anniversary issue of Ebony, November 1965.
John H. Johnson's oral history video excerpts at The National Visionary Leadership Project.
Succeeding Against the Odds
John H Johnson; Lerone Bennett, (1989).
For Younger Readers
John Johnson : Media Magnate
by Keith Elliot Greenberg, (1993).
John H. Johnson, "the man from Ebony"
by Lucille Falkof, (1992).
John Harold Johnson : creator of Ebony Magazine
by Carole Marsh, (2002).
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