John Harold Johnson
John Harold Johnson January 19, 1918 – August 8, 2005
While in high school, Johnson served as managing editor of the school newspaper and also business manager for the yearbook. It was his work on the yearbook and school newspaper that motivated his journalistic ambitions. He drew inspiration to launch a periodical for African-Americans from his college job working for a life insurance company that marketed to African-Americans. The banks refused to grant Johnson a loan because he was African-American. As a result, Johnson was relegated to using his mother's furniture as collateral for $500 to start the Johnson Publishing Company. The first publication was The Negro Digest, and it sold 3,000 copies its first issue. Within a year The Negro Digest was selling 50,000 copies an issue.
This successful beginning opened the door for Johnson to found Ebony, a magazine catering to African-Americans. Ebony’s first circulation of 25,000 copies sold out. By the turn of the century Ebony was selling 1.7 million copies per circulation. Johnson Publishing Company later established Jet Magazine in 1951.
John H. Johnson became the first African-American to be listed with the 400 richest Americans (Forbes 400). His net worth reached and exceeded half a billion dollars.
Like many publishers before him, Johnson used his platform to disseminate important messages. Specifically, Civil Rights and he used the movement's most prominent, outspoken leader as a catalyst for support - Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - who had an advice column with the publisher. King was able to garner increased support for racial equality through these columns. Another means of Johnson appealing to the better nature of a growing audience was through vivid imagery. Jet was one of the first media outlets to publish photographs of Emmitt Till's lynching. Till was a black teenager who was murdered by a mob of white people for the alleged "crime" of 'flirting' with a white woman.
In a country with almost no media outlets owned or operated by people of color, Johnson’s foresight to establish African-American focused publications was revolutionary. Former President Bill Clinton awarded Johnson the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1996. Among his other awards include the Horatio Alger Award, and the Wall Street Journal Dow Jones Entrepreneurial Excellence Award.