The Nation’s Largest African American Video Oral History Collection Mobile search icon Mobile close search icon
Advanced Biography Search
Mobile navigation icon Close mobile navigation icon

John H. Johnson

John H. Johnson, widely regarded as the most influential African American publisher in American history, was born on January 19, 1918, in Arkansas City, Arkansas, to Leroy and Gertrude Johnson Williams. Growing up in Arkansas City, no high schools existed for black students, so Johnson repeated the eighth grade to continue his education. After moving to Chicago with his family shortly thereafter, Johnson attended DuSable High School, where he graduated with honors.

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, after graduating from the University of Chicago, he acted on this idea, and with a $500 loan against his mother’s furniture and $6,000 raised through charter subscriptions, Johnson launched Negro Digest, which later became Black World. Three years later, he launched Ebony, which has remained the number-one African American magazine in the world every year since its founding. In 1951, Johnson Publishing expanded again, with the creation of Jet, the world’s largest African American news weekly magazine.

Johnson also expanded from magazine publishing into book publishing, and owned Fashion Fair Cosmetics, the largest black-owned cosmetics company in the world, Supreme Beauty Products, and produced television specials. Johnson also later became chairman and CEO of Supreme Life Insurance, where he had begun his career.

In addition to his business and publishing acumen, Johnson was highly involved at both community and the national level. In 1957, he accompanied then-Vice President Richard Nixon to nine African nations, and two years later, to Russia and Poland. President John F. Kennedy sent Johnson to the Ivory Coast in 1961 as Special Ambassador to the independence ceremonies taking place there, and President Johnson sent him to Kenya in 1963 for the same purpose. President Nixon later appointed him to the Commission for the Observance of the 25th Anniversary of the United Nations.

Johnson was also the recipient of numerous awards that spanned decades, from the Spingarn Medal to the Most Outstanding Black Publisher in History Award from the National Newspaper Publishers Association. Johnson Publishing has also been named the number one black business by Black Enterprise four times. In 1996, President Bill Clinton awarded Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. He also received more than thirty honorary doctoral degrees from institutions across the country, and served as a board member or trustee of numerous businesses and philanthropic and cultural organizations.

Johnson’s wife, Eunice, and daughter, Linda Johnson-Rice, continue to retain full control of Johnson Publishing as the only two shareholders in the company.

Johnson passed away on August 8, 2005 at the age of 87.

Accession Number

A2004.231

Sex

Male

Interview Date

11/11/2004 |and| 12/16/2004

Last Name

Johnson

Maker Category
Middle Name

H.

Organizations
Search Occupation Category
First Name

John

Birth City, State, Country

Arkansas City

HM ID

JOH19

Favorite Season

January

State

Arkansas

Favorite Vacation Destination

Chicago, Illinois

Favorite Quote

Failure is a word I don’t accept.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Illinois

Birth Date

1/19/1918

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Chicago

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Peas (Black-Eyed)

Death Date

8/8/2005

Short Description

Magazine publishing chief executive and corporate chief executive John H. Johnson (1918 - 2005 ) is widely regarded as most influential African American publisher in history. Johnson's publications include Ebony and Jet. He is a Spingarn Medal winner. Johnson’s wife, Eunice, and daughter, Linda Johnson-Rice, continue to retain full control of Johnson Publishing as the only two shareholders in the company.

Favorite Color

Blue, Red

Timing Pairs
0,0:134,3:469,15:737,20:3350,67:5963,135:9849,339:11256,370:11926,382:12194,387:12596,394:13065,402:14003,424:16214,479:32280,610:36060,690:38350,705:40160,719:41040,732:42800,767:45626,798:46416,809:46732,814:47364,824:47759,830:48154,837:48944,848:52183,908:52894,918:53289,924:54000,940:56607,1030:57239,1039:70862,1115:73098,1203:73442,1208:77742,1275:80494,1321:81096,1334:81612,1341:85220,1351:86648,1410:90728,1489:94128,1556:95420,1585:96440,1612:97120,1623:98208,1643:98684,1651:99024,1657:100248,1690:101540,1722:111170,1858:111950,1880:112190,1889:113210,1913:114710,1963:114950,1968:118664,1992:125488,2073:125812,2080:126514,2096:129510,2130:131511,2171:137516,2278:138342,2302:141124,2324:141676,2337:147541,2461:147817,2466:150025,2552:157867,2610:158902,2635:159454,2645:159799,2652:160903,2683:165181,2784:169519,2807:180900,3043:182988,3093:188604,3186:189108,3194:190332,3220:200510,3330:201210,3339:201490,3344:202540,3366:202820,3371:203310,3380:204670,3390$0,0:476,11:1768,33:2312,44:2652,50:3604,65:5168,89:5576,96:6256,108:20312,364:26120,505:30080,567:63346,1045:63904,1055:67585,1066:72069,1163:78299,1289:78655,1294:79100,1301:79634,1308:80079,1314:80435,1319:95775,1589:96300,1597:104315,1693:105701,1728:107528,1781:108788,1809:112127,1891:112379,1896:120400,2008:121422,2024:122517,2042:122882,2048:128155,2112:137297,2245:137613,2250:138245,2260:138877,2269:139272,2275:140141,2293:141247,2308:142037,2326:151500,2478:155714,2549:156058,2554:173176,2793:193622,3060:194002,3066:194762,3079:202945,3189:209661,3473:210099,3480:219440,3562:225118,3684:228836,3719:232154,3800:238237,3918:243740,3953
DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of John H. Johnson interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - John H. Johnson lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - John H. Johnson talks about his parents

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - John H. Johnson shares his few memories of Arkansas City

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - John H. Johnson recounts leaving Arkansas and arriving in Chicago

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - John H. Johnson recalls his shame at being on welfare

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - John H. Johnson discusses his high school activities

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - John H. Johnson remembers high school classmates Nat King Cole and Redd Foxx

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - John H. Johnson explains why Phillips students were transferred to DuSable High School

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - John H. Johnson recalls the people who influenced him as a teenager

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - John H. Johnson mentions topics covered on his high school newspaper

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - John H. Johnson details the background of black entrepreneur Harry H. Pace

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - John H. Johnson discusses the merger creating Supreme Liberty Life Insurance

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - John H. Johnson recalls his job as Earl Dickerson's driver on his aldermanic campaign

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - John H. Johnson relates lessons learned from Supreme Liberty Life executives

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - John H. Johnson compares Chicago politicians William Dawson and Earl Dickerson

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - John H. Johnson explains why Harry H. Pace started passing for white

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - John H. Johnson recounts how he started 'Negro Digest' magazine

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - John H. Johnson recalls Harry Pace's support for the idea of a 'Negro Digest'

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - John H. Johnson recalls quitting college to run Supreme Life's agent newspaper

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - John H. Johnson details how he got the money to start 'Negro Digest'

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - John H. Johnson considers the reasons for his success

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - John H. Johnson recalls his courtship and marriage to Eunice Walker

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - John H. Johnson explains how he got a wartime paper quota to publish 'Negro Digest'

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - John H. Johnson relates how he created a distribution system for 'Negro Digest'

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - John H. Johnson remembers Eleanor Roosevelt's guest column for "Negro Digest"

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - John H. Johnson describes his relationship with others in the black press

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - John H. Johnson recalls hiring whites to train blacks who would replace them

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - John H. Johnson recalls facing racial discrimination in buying business property

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - John H. Johnson remembers launching Ebony magazine in 1945

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - John H. Johnson relates how he first sold major advertising in 'Ebony'

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - John H. Johnson recounts his success in placing his cosmetics line in major stores

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - John H. Johnson recalls selling his cosmetics line to Neiman Marcus department stores

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - John H. Johnson recounts buying out his competitor, 'Our World'

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - John H. Johnson relates how he attracted and retained a talented staff

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - John H. Johnson remembers starting other magazines as times changed

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - John H. Johnson talks about writers Lerone Bennett and Bob Johnson

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - John H. Johnson discusses recruiting sales people from the Urban League

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - John H. Johnson recalls selling subscriptions through churches

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - John H. Johnson discusses his influence on the Harvard Business School advisory board

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - John H. Johnson recounts his work toward Ebony's advertising and circulation success

Tape: 5 Story: 10 - John H. Johnson remembers Jet's Emmett Till cover

Tape: 5 Story: 11 - John H. Johnson talks about changing 'Ebony''s image and firing Ben Burns

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - John H. Johnson recalls meetings with U.S. presidents Johnson and Nixon

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - John H. Johnson remembers meeting Kwame Nkrumah, first president of Ghana

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - John H. Johnson shares his pride in the Johnson Publishing Company building

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - John H. Johnson discusses his friendship with Earl Graves

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - John H. Johnson expresses his optimism for the future of the black community

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - John H. Johnson considers his legacy

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - John H. Johnson remembers photographer Moneta Sleet and Dr. King's funeral

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - John H. Johnson recalls Robert E. Johnson's work for 'Jet'

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - John H. Johnson discusses Lerone Bennett, Jr.'s books and articles for Johnson Publishing

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - John H. Johnson recounts society editor Gerri Major's contributions to the development of 'Jet'

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - John H. Johnson talks about the book 'Black Society' by Gerri Major and Doris Saunders

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - John H. Johnson describes Doris Saunders' role in developing Johnson Publishing Company's book division

Tape: 8 Story: 1 - John H. Johnson remembers writer Hans J. Massaquoi

Tape: 8 Story: 2 - John H. Johnson recalls Basil Phillips' contributions to JPC and explains the importance of multi-tasking

Tape: 8 Story: 3 - John H. Johnson describes Isaac Sutton's photographic expertise and personality

Tape: 8 Story: 4 - John H. Johnson discusses hiring Herb Temple, JPC art director

Tape: 8 Story: 5 - John H. Johnson recounts attracting sales people Bill Grayson and Leroy Jeffries from other organizations

Tape: 8 Story: 6 - John H. Johnson details how he rented space at the Rockefeller Center in New York

Tape: 8 Story: 7 - John H. Johnson recalls Bill Grayson's advertising expertise

Tape: 8 Story: 8 - John H. Johnson recounts how John F. Kennedy got him Ford advertising

Tape: 9 Story: 1 - John H. Johnson recalls forming an in-house legal department at Johnson Publishing

Tape: 9 Story: 2 - John H. Johnson recalls Simeon Booker, the Washington office, and JPC's political neutrality

Tape: 9 Story: 3 - John H. Johnson recounts opening his Los Angeles office

Tape: 9 Story: 4 - John H. Johnson recalls hiring Lydia Davis Eady as a new Howard graduate

Tape: 9 Story: 5 - John H. Johnson remembers a visit from Jackie Robinson

Tape: 9 Story: 6 - John H. Johnson recounts Joe Louis' personal struggles

Tape: 9 Story: 7 - John H. Johnson shares stories about Sammy Davis Jr.

Tape: 9 Story: 8 - John H. Johnson tells about Diahann Carroll's marriage to Jet's Robert DeLeon

Tape: 9 Story: 9 - John H. Johnson remembers Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

Tape: 10 Story: 1 - John H. Johnson shares anecdotes about Adam Clayton Powell

Tape: 10 Story: 2 - John H. Johnson talks about his two children's adoptions and his son's death

Tape: 10 Story: 3 - John H. Johnson discusses the Ebony Fashion Show

Tape: 10 Story: 4 - John H. Johnson recalls his expansion into the international market

Tape: 10 Story: 5 - John H. Johnson discusses his magazines' political neutrality

Tape: 10 Story: 6 - John H. Johnson discusses using his broad-ranging business knowledge on corporate boards

Tape: 10 Story: 7 - John H. Johnson recounts his forays into cable television

Tape: 10 Story: 8 - John H. Johnson discusses his relationship to Mayor Richard J. Daley

Tape: 11 Story: 1 - John H. Johnson recalls his mentors Harry Pace and Earl Dickerson

Tape: 11 Story: 2 - John H. Johnson relates his mother's influence on his life

Tape: 11 Story: 3 - John H. Johnson describes the strength of his daughter and granddaughter

Tape: 11 Story: 4 - John H. Johnson discusses passing on Johnson Publishing Company to his daughter

Tape: 11 Story: 5 - John H. Johnson remembers working with Gordon Parks in 1948

Tape: 11 Story: 6 - John H. Johnson shares an anecdote about Muhammad Ali

Tape: 11 Story: 7 - John H. Johnson remembers Ray Charles

Tape: 11 Story: 8 - John H. Johnson shares his opinion of what makes a good publisher, businessman, and member of the black community

DASession

1$1

DATape

2$4

DAStory

7$4

DATitle
John H. Johnson recounts how he started 'Negro Digest' magazine
John H. Johnson remembers launching Ebony magazine in 1945
Transcript
So let's start talk about the start of 'Negro Digest' and how, you know, how you went about doing that. You said, you got the idea by basically doing those clippings [to keep his boss, Harry H. Pace, up to date with news in the black press].$$Yeah, people kept asking me, "How can I get it?" So I thought maybe it would be a good idea.$$Because you would--it's really because you were around telling people what, what the things you learned?$$Yes, that's right.$$You became an information source.$$That's right, that's right, that's correct. And so, so when I finally decided to, to, to try and put it out, nobody else thought it was a good idea but me (chuckle). And I didn't have any money. So the question was, what was the best way to get started? And so I thought maybe--see you have to understand that there had never been a successful commercial black magazine before. The only black magazines that were still going was 'The Crisis' with the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] and a magazine called 'Opportunity' of the Urban League. They were the only two magazines that blacks had. So I went to the bank thinking I could borrow--I wasn't trying to get much money because I had figured out I could--I needed $500.00 for, for postage. And I, I discussed my idea with Mr. Pace, and he said I could use some names at the [Supreme Liberty Life] insurance company cause one of my many duties was to run what they called the Speedomat machine, which was really an addressing machine. And, and they had, in the insurance business, you have people, you have what they industrial insurance where you collect every week, and then you have ordinary insurance where you pay every 6 months and once a year. And I told him about it. And he said, "Well, you know we've, we've got some good names," but he said, "don't, don't try to do, deal with the industrial 'cause those people don't have any money. Let's send, you can send letters to the Ordinary policyholders. And you can use the names. As a matter of fact," he said, "you, you're working in that section anyway. We'll supply you with the paper. You just got to get the money for the, for the stamps. So, and the other thing I learned from Mr. Pace was, I, I said, "Well, you know, I, I was thinking maybe I could--nobody knows me. I could set up an editorial board, and would you be on the board?" He said, "No, I wouldn't be on the board cause it's not a good idea." I said, "Well, I'm thinking about Mrs. Bethune, Mrs. Mary McCleod Bethune and Walter White." He said, "No. Walter, Mrs. Bethune and I have lived a long time. We've all made a great many enemies. You can't live that long without making enemies. And if you put, put it out with our names on it, there'll be people who won't think about what's in it. They'll just say, I don't like Pace. I don't like so and so. I don't like so and so. And they won't read it. On the other hand, if you put out a good magazine, then you don't need anybody's name on it." And so that taught me. And he said, "And don't have any partners." (laughter). And to this day, after 60 years, I have no partners. We, we--it's a private corporation. I, I've had people invest and all, but we, we've--I always remembered what Mr. Pace said, don't have partners, 'cause you have too many arguments. You can't make your own decisions.$Just so we understand, so 'Negro Digest' is doing well, and then you're not happ--you're always looking for opportunities at that point?$$Always trying to do better, always trying to do better, always trying to do better. Well, when I thought about 'Negro Digest' and I felt I needed to start a magazine like 'Ebony', I assumed, cause we were selling to a lot of soldiers, I figured we would--'Negro Digest' was a serious magazine. I thought when, when the war [World War Two] was over and the soldiers came home, they wanted some kind of entertainment, you know. They wanted to see cheesecake. They wanted to see something that was uplifting. So that's how we got the idea for starting 'Ebony.' And my wife [Eunice Walker Johnson] thought of the name. And the reason we named it 'Ebony' because when we--'Negro Digest', we never could get, what--what shall (unclear)--protection on the name cause the, the department in Washington says, and if, if the name is descriptive of the goods, you can't get protection. And so I had to think of something that meant black, but didn't say it. And so we thought of 'Ebony.' 'Ebony' meant black, but it didn't say black. And that's why we did 'Jet' [magazine], so we could get, get protection on both of, both names.$$Now, how did you, at that point, become aware that that was important, you know, getting protection on the name?$$Because they had denied it before (laughter).$$That's--okay, okay.$$See, I learned from experience. No, I, I tried to get it on, on 'Negro Digest,' and they wouldn't give it to me. So I thought if I start another magazine, I'm not going through that again.$$And so you were patterning it [Ebony] after 'Life' Magazine?$$Yes. Yes.$$You wanted a black 'Life.'$$But, and the reason here again, I was checking newsstands all the time to see what was selling. See, you know, my, my heart and soul was always in this business now. So I, I was never satisfied. I always wanted to do better. So I found that the biggest selling magazine on the newsstands in the black community was 'Life.' So I thought if black people were paying that much to--for white pictures, they would pay more for black pictures. So that's how we happened to do that.$$So what--so--tell, talk about the decision about when to launch it because you're still in the war, right? It's at the tail end--$$Well, I could not--yeah, but you have to understand this now--$$Okay.$$See, I had a paper quota, but I couldn't get any paper quota for a new magazine because here again, it was all based on what happened in 1941. So anyway, I was always wanting to do it, but I knew I couldn't do it until the war was over. So the minute the war over, paper was available, so that's when, that's how we started. See, the, the war was first over in Japan (sic, Europe). And then it had to be over in, in Europe. (sic, Japan) And so when the war was over, I was poised, and I had a printer and had ideas, a name for the magazine. So the minute the war over, paper was available.$$So how did you decided, like that first cover of the magazine, it has the kids on the front, right?$$Well, it--$$How did you decide--$$If, if I were doing it over again, I wouldn't do that picture [a photograph of seven boys, six white and one black, accompanying a story about black kids from New York who were taken to spend the summer with white families in Vermont] (laughter). But what happened was that it was unusual for white families to invite blacks to live in their homes. And, and in those days, blacks were anxious to be integrated. So that's why I did it. But if I were doing again, I wouldn't do it.$$Now, why would--why do you say that? What would you have done?$$Well, I guess, I shouldn't say that. I said, I guess I would still have to do it during that period, but since then, we've had Martin Luther King and we've had all kinds of advances, and, and I wouldn't--I would have been reluctant to do it.