Rags to Riches: Ebony Magazine's John H. Johnson

The odds of John H. Johnson becoming a multi-millionaire were as slim as the meager means on which his family existed. Born in rural Arkansas City, Arkansas in 1918, Johnson was the grandson of slaves. He saw his father killed in a sawmill accident and watched his mother work as a cook and washwoman, struggling to feed her family. Yet even with these humble beginnings, John H. Johnson ended his life as one of the world's most successful and honored executives.

His rags to riches story was fueled by his mother, first by her determination and later by something a little surprising - her furniture. In 1933, using money Mrs. Johnson saved from her washing job, the whole Johnson family left the South. They went north to Chicago, as did many African-Americans during that time.

In Chicago, John enrolled in an all-black high school and saw something he'd never seen before: middle class people of his own race. It gave him hope that the world had something more to offer him, and it did. In fact, he was surrounded by the potential for greatness. Included among his classmates at DuSableHigh School were Nat "King" Cole, Red Foxx and future entrepreneur William Abernathy.

Johnson's first break came just after high school when he was invited to speak at a dinner held by the Urban League. Harry Pace, the President of Liberty Supreme Life Insurance, was so impressed with Johnson that he offered him a job and a scholarship to attend college part-time at the University of Chicago.

At the age of 21, his work as an in-house magazine editor led him to the idea that would change his life: Negro Digest, the predecessor of Ebony. His job for Pace required him to collect articles culled from national magazines. He came to know the whole magazine world and was struck by the fact that blacks had no voice. He realized the articles he was using to keep up with current events of interest to blacks could be published and sold to African-Americans as a group, the way Reader's Digest reached its audience.

All he needed was capital. Here's where Johnson's mother enters the picture again, or rather, what she owned. Johnson borrowed $500 against his mother's furniture and started Johnson Publishing Company.

In 1942, Johnson launched Negro Digest. It featured articles from both black and white writers focusing on the race issues. The publication's circulation started at 50,000. Within the year, it doubled. Three years later, Johnson debuted Ebony, a magazine that set the standard for ethnic publications. Johnson had cornered a market.

Johnson's profit margins began to rise. Since these magazines were the only ones of their kind, he faced no competition. Ebony introduced advertisers to a new market: the black middle class. The ad world's interest translated into even more wealth for Johnson. In 1951, he created Jet, a pocket sized weekly magazine that highlighted news of African-Americans in the social, political, entertainment, business and sports worlds. More than eight million people currently read this publication alone.

Keeping publications as his foundation, Johnson expanded into other areas. Johnson Publishing includes a book division and owns Fashion Fair Cosmetics, the number one makeup and skin care company for women of color. Johnson Publishing produces a traveling fashion event that visits more than 200 cities each year called Ebony Fashion Fair. At one point, Johnson's net worth was estimated at $150 million. In 1982, he became the first black person to be named one of Forbes' richest Americans.

Johnson's business success opened many doors, nationally and internationally. He gained boards of director memberships at Dillard's Inc., First Commercial Bank, Little Rock, Dial Corporation, Zenith Radio Corporation, and Chrysler Corporation. In the fifties, he accompanied President Nixon on goodwill tours to African countries and to Russia and Poland. In the sixties, Johnson was appointed two Special Ambassadorships, one to the Ivory Coast and the other to Kenya. In 1996, President Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Now, a second generation of the Johnsons is in charge of the groundbreaking company. In 2002, Johnson named Linda Johnson Rice CEO of the company. He kept the title of Chairman and Publisher until his death on August 8th of this year, the 60th Anniversary of Ebony.

While Johnson has passed on, the business he built continues. Jet remains a strong magazine and Ebony is still the leading publication for African-Americans. But Johnson's legacy goes beyond business success, he gave a voice to those who may not otherwise have a say.