John H. Johnson, 87; Innovative Publisher Built an Empire From Ebony, Jet Magazines

Times Staff Writer

John H. Johnson, the innovative publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines who countered mid-20th century publishing stereotypes by providing positive coverage of blacks in mass-market publications, has died. He was 87.

Johnson died Monday of heart failure at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, his Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Co. announced.

Born into poverty in Arkansas, Johnson sought to increase African Americans’ pride by showcasing their achievements.

He depicted entertainers and sports stars with glamorous clothes, cars and homes, sought out white corporate advertising aimed at blacks and promoted use of black models in those ads.


But, in covering what was happening to blacks, he also stirred interest in the civil rights movement.

“White racists knew they could do anything to black folks and it would never be reported in the white press,” the comedian Dick Gregory told The Times in 2002 after Jet turned 50. “But with Jet around, that changed.” Johnson founded his company in 1942 with a $500 loan on his mother’s furniture, and began publishing the now-defunct Negro Digest, which ran short stories and poetry by black writers and articles of interest to blacks. He solicited subscriptions from the mailing list of the black-owned Supreme Life Insurance Co., where he had clerked and which he later bought.

By urging readers to ask for the magazine at newsstands, he built the circulation from 5,000 to 50,000 copies a month within a year. A year later, circulation soared to 100,000 when Johnson persuaded First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to write a column.

Johnson started the glossier Ebony in 1945, as black soldiers were returning home from World War II and seeking a better lifestyle. The first press run for the monthly magazine was 25,000, and by 1997 Johnson had built that to 1.9 million.


He launched the weekly news magazine Jet in 1951 and added the monthly Ebony Man in 1985.

“We try to seek out good things, even when everything seems bad,” Johnson said in explaining the purpose of Ebony, which was named by his wife, Eunice. “We look for breakthroughs, we look for people who have made it, who have succeeded against the odds, who have proven somehow that longshots do come in.”

Jet’s first cover pictured the wife of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, Edna, wearing a mink. Inside were her whimsical pointers on how other black women could get their own mink. The magazine followed the formula of glamour, whimsy and serious issues.

When critics carped that Ebony and Jet were too glittery and focused on the trappings of wealth that few blacks could afford, Johnson shrugged it off.


“When my mother gave me a dose of castor oil, first she had to catch me. Then she gave it to me in orange juice to cut the taste,” he told the Boston Globe in 1993.

“So when we run Whitney Houston on the cover ... that’s orange juice. But once you open the magazine and get inside, there’s a whole lot of castor oil. The hard stories are there. I reach out with the entertainment, then follow up with serious information and direction. It’s a balancing act and it works.”

Receiving the Horatio Alger Award in 1966, Johnson said on the company website, “validates what I set out to do. It gave me credibility.” Myriad other awards from black, business and journalism organizations would follow.

Johnson’s magazines gave him national cachet not only among blacks but with political leaders. He was invited to accompany Vice President Richard M. Nixon on a goodwill tour to nine African countries in 1957 and to Russia and Poland two years later. In the early 1960s, presidents Kennedy and Johnson sent him to represent the United States at independence ceremonies for Ivory Coast and Kenya, and Johnson appointed him to the National Selective Service Commission.


In 1996, when President Clinton awarded Johnson the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he praised the publisher for giving “African Americans a voice and a face, in his words, ‘a new sense of somebody-ness,’ of who they were and what they could do, at a time when they were virtually invisible in the mainstream American culture.”

Johnson, who was told by civil rights leader Roy Wilkins in the early 1940s that a black magazine would never sell, in 1982 became the first African American on Forbes’ list of the 400 wealthiest Americans.

“Money,” he said in “Succeeding Against the Odds,” his 1989 autobiography, “is perhaps the greatest of all civil rights bills.”

According to its website, Johnson Publishing Co., now run largely by his daughter Linda Johnson Rice, is the world’s largest black-owned and -operated publishing company with annual revenue of more than $388 million.


In addition to Ebony, Jet and Ebony Man, the company owns Fashion Fair Cosmetics, which markets beauty products for black women; Ebony Fashion Fair, which uses fashion shows to raise money for charity; and JPC Book Division, which publishes books by African American writers.

Johnson retained the titles of publisher and chairman until his death and continued to go to the office regularly.

The grandson of slaves, Johnson was born Jan. 19, 1918, in Arkansas City, which had no high school. His father died in a sawmill accident when he was 8, and his mother, a cook and washerwoman, moved him to Chicago when he was 15 so that he could be educated.

After completing high school, he studied at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University before joining Supreme Life Insurance Co.


In addition to his wife Eunice and daughter Linda, Johnson is survived by one granddaughter. A son, John Jr., died in 1981 of sickle cell anemia.