When black actors and actresses were still relegated to the maid and butler roles in movies, John H. Johnson knew black readers wanted to know about the lives of black celebrities.
And he knew black readers wanted to dream a little, perhaps to copy a table setting of Marian Anderson, to read about the achievements of black people all over the world. Johnson, who died yesterday at age 87, was so sure he was right that he persuaded his mother to hock her furniture for $500 so he could get started in publishing.
His two most famous magazines, the monthly Ebony and the weekly Jet, became fixtures in black America. Ebony became a bible and the standard decoration on the coffee tables in black homes, rich or poor -- not to mention a handy jumping-off point for talk in the barbershop or beauty parlor about celebrities and athletes. The compact news weekly Jet, founded after Ebony, was filled with pictures, news about blacks in Washington, and lists of upcoming shows and movies that featured black actors.
I still remember, as a girl growing up in New Jersey, having my father bring home the black newspapers of the time, and Ebony and Jet. He emphasized that they were textbooks in their way, filling in knowledge gaps about church leaders and educators. Of course, he was just as interested in the gowns of Lena Horne, as well as what she said about the push for integration. With those magazines, which were never thrown away, people like actor Sidney Poitier and tennis star Althea Gibson seemed a part of the family.
When Johnson started, there were other magazines for the black reading public, such as the NAACP's Crisis, that spoke to the literary and political needs of that population. But Johnson had a different idea. And he launched a journal of black thought, Negro Digest, in 1942. Johnson enjoyed being provocative, and the publication included a feature called "If I Were a Negro." Among the contributors were Eleanor Roosevelt and Orson Welles.
But in 1945 he came up with a formula of lavish photography spreads and interviews with people who were still shut out of the American culture and those who were making inroads. He christened this window into black life Ebony, and printed it in the format used by the leading magazines of the day, Life and Look.
As a businessman, he was a forceful member of the generation of black leaders who put their finances and reputations behind black causes. While accumulating millions of dollars for his business and family, he never veered from his formula.
"We're trying to inspire people," said Johnson.
He knew what would get his publications into black homes and consciousness. "We wanted to see Dr. Charles Drew and Ralph Bunche and Jackie Robinson and the other men and women who were building the campfires of tomorrow," he said. "We intended to highlight black breakthroughs and pockets of progress. But we didn't intend to ignore difficulties and harsh realities."
There would be many debates over the years about what Ebony and Jet did ignore, how the magazines were soft and flashy, how the fluff could overshadow the writings of historian Lerone Bennett Jr., which gave them a respectability, and the signature centerfold in Jet of a lovely in a bathing suit or brief attire, but people didn't put them down.
When the magazines were right, they earned a place in history. When Johnson published the grisly photographs of Emmett Till, the black youth murdered in Mississippi in the 1950s, people said later their lives were changed. They better understood all the stories passed down about lynchings and midnight murders, and they were energized to fight a modern fight against hatred. Years later, the medical experiments on black men, the Tuskegee syphilis cases, were given exposure in his magazines, as was the drug scourge, right up to the ecstasy threat.
The achievements Johnson celebrated had resonance around the world. Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie once complimented him on his stories about black progress. And Johnson himself became an ambassador-at-large on presidential goodwill tours. He was one of the most visible black businessmen of the last century.
His magazines were also breeding grounds for black journalists, who didn't start to break into the mainstream press until the late 1950s and 1960s. They complained about the low pay but acknowledged they were a vital part of the information chain.
The content of his magazines was designed to counter all the ugly stereotypes of black people that existed elsewhere. In time, some of the articles created some new stereotypes -- the driveways full of luxury cars, the annual look at black bachelors. The news was there, but the investigative and explanatory journalism was secondary to a good layout. "We don't rush to print critical things about black leaders -- even if it's true," Johnson once said.
And he didn't apologize for putting the most recognized black celebrities on the covers; the white celebrity magazines weren't doing it. "We are looking for people with instant recognition," Johnson said, "and most of those people, among blacks, unfortunately, are entertainers and sports figures."
And the celebrities themselves saw Ebony and Jet as vehicles to speak directly to black people. Who could forget actress Diahann Carroll answering those who said she was turning her back on the black community with a stinging article titled "I've Been Black All the Time."
So it has been left to Ebony and Jet to feed our curiosity about the groundbreaking figures, from Arthur Ashe to Colin Powell. To learn about historically black colleges, their leaders, their hardships. To see black athletes in their off-the-field glory. In the latest issue of Ebony, I didn't want to know all the details about actress Holly Robinson Peete, but reading last week's Jet, I did want to know all there was to say about Luther Vandross. And Johnson knew that people would be drawn in, silly or not, for a taste of black life.