John Johnson

Pioneer in black journalism

John Johnson got his start in business by borrowing $500, using his mother's furniture as security. When he died more than 60 years later he was worth some $500m and ran one of the largest media empires in the United States. His was a classic American rags-to-riches story - but with one very distinctive twist. Johnson was black.

His legacy includes a stable of magazines, including the market-leading Ebony and Jet, as well as cosmetics and fashion concerns. More important than the individual parts however was their sum: a huge collective impetus to African-American self-awareness and sense of identity. "We wanted to give blacks a new somebodiness," he once said, "a new sense of self-respect."

Johnson was born in rural Arkansas. His grandparents were slaves. His mother worked as a domestic; his father, a sawmill labourer, was killed in a work accident. His mother remarried, and in the mid-1930s the family moved to Chicago, where Johnson excelled at school and university. His early ambition was to be a journalist; but instead of writing for publications, he decided to launch them.

His first venture was Negro Digest, modelled on Readers Digest and financed by the $500 he raised on his mother's furniture. Johnson was then working for an insurance company. He asked 20,000 of its policyholders to make advance $2 subscriptions to the new magazine. Some 3,000 agreed. Inside a year, Negro Digest was selling 50,000 copies, a figure that doubled for one issue when he persuaded Eleanor Roosevelt to contribute a column entitled "If I Were A Negro". If she were, the then first lady wrote, "I would have great bitterness, but I would also have great patience".

Johnson's virtues were not only patience, but an indomitable perseverance. "The only failure is a failure to try," was a favourite adage, as he badgered reluctant white-owned corporate America to advertise in his magazines. In November 1945, he launched Ebony, a magazine inspired by Life, carrying a wide spectrum of news about black business and culture. Today Ebony sells 1.6m copies a month. In 1951 the news magazine Jet appeared, its first cover adorned by Edna Robinson, wife of the boxer Sugar Ray, dressed in a mink coat.

The magazines had a double purpose. At one level, they were a showcase for black America, displaying its stars, its fads and lifestyle trends. The tone was unfailingly positive, aimed at demonstrating that blacks lived rich, interesting and normal lives. But Johnson was also a pioneer in black journalism when a large part of America lived in the shadow of segregation and open racism. In 1955, Jet created a sensation by publishing the open-coffin photo of a battered Emmett Till, the teenager lynched in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman.

In the 1960s and 1970s the empire expanded further, with new magazines and Fashion Fair Cosmetics, specialising in products for dark-skinned people. In 1982 Johnson became the first black entrepreneur to make the Forbes magazine list of the 400 richest Americans.

Rupert Cornwell

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