John H. Johnson, media giant, dead at 87
By: Karen E. Pride
Special to the NNPA from the Chicago Defender
Originally posted 8/11/2005
CHICAGO (NNPA) –John H. Johnson, the award-winning publishing pioneer and cosmetics mogul who used the pages of Ebony and Jet magazines to trumpet the stories of African Americans for the past 60 years, and in turn built a $500 million media empire, died Monday at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. He was 87.
His story is a rags-to-riches tale. A man who left Arkansas for Chicago as part of the Great Migration launched by Chicago Defender founder, Robert Abbott, Johnson went from poverty and welfare to one of the nation’s richest men.
He was chairman of the Johnson Publishing Company, Inc., which he founded in 1942. The company’s flagship magazines, Ebony and Jet, are considered the premiere African-American publications around the world.
Johnson expanded his empire into make-up and runway couture with his Ebony Fashion Fair and Fashion Fair cosmetics line which have emphasized the glamour and sophistication of African American men and women.
In a statement, Linda Rice Johnson, Johnson’s only surviving child and the company’s president and CEO, said her father had been active in company affairs until recently.
“He was in his office every day until his last illness and was alert and active until the end,” she said. “He was the greatest salesman and CEO I have ever known, but he was also a father, friend and mentor with a great sense of humor, who never stopped climbing mountains and dreaming dreams.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., who visited the offices of Johnson Publishing Company to speak to and console the staff, said he was saddened at the loss of such a great man.
“The tallest tree in the history of African American journalism has fallen, but has fallen gracefully,” Jackson Sr. told the Chicago Defender. “He shared the pain of Emmett Till, the development of Martin Luther King Jr. and was a source of information and inspiration.”
Jackson recounted how Johnson gave him his first decent job in Chicago, after Mayor Richard J. Daley had offered a position as a toll collector.
“One man saw a toll taker, the other saw a communicator,” said Jackson.
He said it was very emotional for him when he spoke to the staff.
“The family is so close-knit, and he (Johnson) prepared her (Rice) for this,” Jackson said. “We have his legacy but the business of his company is intact. The family is in mourning but strong.”
John Harold Johnson was born in Arkansas City, Ark., on January 19, 1918, the grandson of slaves.
His father, Leroy Johnson, died in an industrial accident when he was very young and his mother, Gertrude Jenkins Johnson, saved her wages as a cook to move the family away to Chicago.
With $500 borrowed from his mother, John H. Johnson created what would become an unprecedented magazine publishing company.
Throughout his career, Johnson was the recipient of numerous honors, honorary doctorates, and awards for his entrepreneurial prowess.
He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in 1996 from President Bill Clinton.
In 2003, the Howard University School of Communications was named in his honor.
His childhood home in Arkansas City was dedicated as the John H. Johnson Delta Cultural and Entrepreneurial Learning Center earlier this year.
Johnson wielded enormous influence over many of the people with whom he worked over the years, but he had perhaps the longest and strongest relationship with Lerone Bennett, Ebony and Jet’s executive editor emeritus.
”I was just overwhelmed when I heard the news,” said Bennett, who worked with Johnson for 51 years. “I saw him about a week ago, at the hospital, and he was still alert and on the case. I knew things were serious and I was just honored once again to be able to talk with him and share a few moments.”
Bennett said Johnson was “an American original” who gave Blacks a sense of self.
“His passion was the African American-press,” said Bennett. “He admired the Defender’s founder, Robert Abbott. And he almost single-handedly persuaded Madison Avenue and corporate America it was in their best interest to use Black models to appeal to Black consumers.”
John H. Johnson was considered the gold standard for many journalists and media practitioners, such as Earl Graves, founder and publisher of Black Enterprise magazine.
“Legend. Pioneer. Visionary. Those are some of the appropriate words for John H. Johnson. He was ahead of his time, not as an African American, but as an American, period,” Graves said. “He represented all of us. As an icon, he’s really part of Americana now.”
But Graves and Johnson weren’t always on friendly terms.
“Anyone who started a Black business, as I did, over 30 years ago, had to look up to someone. And at that time, the only thing out there was Ebony. But in the beginning, he treated me as the competition,” Graves said. “But one day, he called me and wanted a meeting. By the end of the meeting he told be he wanted to be my friend. I told him he was already my friend. He said, ‘No, when I leave here I’ll be your friend. When I came in here, I was not your friend.’'''
Graves said Johnson even advertised in his magazine.
Accolades and tributes came from colleagues and former employees around the country.
''Johnson was a true media pioneer,'' said a spokesman for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. ''His passing creates a huge vacuum in the publishing industry and in our community. Long before the mainstream community covered the Black community, Jet and Ebony provided non-stereotypical news of our community.''
In 1965, the NAACP awarded Johnson the coveted Spingarn Medal, the NAACP's highest honor presented for outstanding achievements.
“We all grew up with Ebony, Jet and Johnson publications. Mr. Johnson was a pioneer, a visionary, and an inspiration to us all,” said Bryan Monroe, National Association of Black Journalists newly-elected president and assistant vice president for news at Knight Ridder in San Jose. “He is responsible for the careers and success of hundreds of Black journalists and his voice will be missed.”
Christopher Benson, a former writer and editor at Ebony and co-author of The Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America, said: “He was a taskmaster but someone who you wanted to please. You wanted to get his approval so you wanted to do an excellent job; he demanded that.” said Benson. “He surrounded himself with the best and brightest talent. He did so much to help portray a strong image of African-Americans to this country and persuaded national advertisers to spend on his publications.”
He said many staffers looked at Johnson as a father figure.
“The 15 years, on and off, I worked for him was an extraordinary experience,” Benson said. “We recognized we were working for someone who had carved out a place in the history of this country.”
Rev. T.L. Barrett Jr., pastor of Life Center Church Of God in Christ in Chicago, recalls that before he went to work for John H. Johnson as a 950/WJPC-AM morning radio personality -- Johnson owned the station -- Barrett had only dreamed of building a church.
But after observing Johnson’s conscientious work ethic, Barrett knew his dream could become a reality.
''Johnson was a consistent, dedicated working man who wasn’t caught up in the luxury of his success. He was all about doing more and building,” said Barrett, who hosted a daily show, ''The Wonderful Hour,'' on the station.
Johnson was a great pioneer in communications, said Rev. Stephen J. Thurston Sr., pastor of New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church and president of the National Baptist Convention of America.
“He brought history, current events and future events within the confines of African-American homes across the United States,” he said. “When we couldn’t hear from anyone else, we heard from Ebony and Jet and when we couldn’t be in any one else’s magazine we became stars in John Johnson’s publications. May his legacy live long through his family especially his daughter who carries on that legacy.”
Rev. Al Sampson, pastor of Fernwood United Methodist Church, said, “John Johnson was the most important personality on the pages of African American history. His brilliant mind gave us, in Ebony and Jet, presidents to vote for and leaders like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela to emulate in order to struggle for our independence. Lerone Bennett (senior executive editor emeritus) has lost a great friend, the Johnson family has lost a mighty patriarch and we as a people have lost the wind beneath our wings.”
Johnson is survived by Eunice Johnson, his wife of 65 years, and daughter, Linda Johnson Rice.
Reported by Roland S. Martin, Theresa Fambro Hooks, Earl Calloway, Leslie Jones McCloud, Rhonda Jones, Corey Hall, Ken Smikle, and Alphonzo Stein