John H. Johnson, 87, who used a $500 loan to found what became the world's largest African American publishing company, changing the face of American media with Ebony and Jet magazines, died Monday at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. He had congestive heart failure.
Since his start in 1942 with the Negro Digest, Johnson built $498.2 million in holdings that include the popular and profitable Ebony Fashion Fair and the country's largest black-owned cosmetics company, Fashion Fair Cosmetics.
Ebony and Jet, with glossy pictures of entertainers and articles on current events, black history and culture, became coffee table fixtures in homes, offices and barbershops in the African American community. For six decades, the magazines chronicled black life in this country, from just after World War II through the civil rights movement and the growth of the black middle class. They provided for black Americans a more reflective view of themselves than any other media, and despite criticism over the years, the magazines continued to hold on to their niche.
Johnson, the first successful black publisher to emerge after World War II, capitalized on the scarcity of positive images of black Americans in the mainstream media when he started the Negro Digest. He used his mother's new furniture as collateral on a loan to start the periodical, which resembled Reader's Digest and reprinted stories from other publications.
While working for the Supreme Life Insurance Co. in Chicago, he sold charter subscriptions for $2 each and distributed 5,000 copies. The magazine's popularity grew, making a leap in circulation from 50,000 to 100,000 in October 1943 when Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a guest column titled, "If I Were a Negro."
He told an audience of businesspeople and educators in 1998 that the first lady initially told him she was too busy to write the column. "Then I wrote one more letter and said I'd wait until she wasn't too busy," he said, according to the Chicago Tribune. "Her secretary prevailed, and Mrs. Roosevelt wrote a piece that started, "If I were a Negro I would have great bitterness. But I would also have great patience."
Johnson attributed his success to patience, persistence and taking advantage of every disadvantage.
On Nov. 1, 1945, he founded the monthly Ebony magazine, showcasing black people in photos similar to those in Life magazine. Ebony quickly outranked Negro Digest in sales with its emphasis on arts, politics, business and social issues.
"We wanted to give blacks a new sense of somebodiness, a new sense of self-respect," Johnson once said. "We wanted to tell them who they were and what they could do. We believed then -- and we believe now -- that blacks needed positive images to fulfill their potentialities."
That year, his company published its first book, "The Best of Negro Humor." From 1945 to 1972, Johnson Publishing Co. also produced, among other magazines, Tan Confessions, a true-confessions magazine; Ebony Jr., aimed at children; and Ebony South Africa.
Jet, the weekly pocket-size news magazine, was first published in 1951 with a cover photo of Edna Robinson, wife of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. She wore a mink coat, and readers were offered the chance to learn how they could afford the expensive garment. It was a smashing success.
Jet also helped fuel the civil rights movement when, in 1955, it published a photo of Emmett Till's bruised face after the Chicago teenager was lynched in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
Johnson diversified in 1946 with a mail-order company called Beauty Star, which later became the successful Fashion Fair Cosmetics.
In 1956, Johnson staged his first fashion show for charity, prompted by the wife of the former president of Dillard University in New Orleans. That event gave birth to the Ebony Fashion Fair, a Broadway-style production that is still performed across the country and that contributes more than $50 million in scholarships to African Americans.
Johnson, who has been honored for his philanthropy and commitment to education, donated $4 million in 2003 to the Howard University School of Communications, which renamed the school for him.
"From my personal story, people can learn that a good education and determination not to fail can be helpful," Johnson said in the book "A Wealth of Wisdom: Legendary African American Elders Speak." "I say failure is a word I don't accept. I've just refused to fail and as a result of that, I've succeeded."
John Harold Johnson was born Jan. 19, 1918, in a shotgun house in Arkansas City, Ark. His mother, Gertrude Johnson, who worked as a domestic, named him "Johnnie" after a friend. His father, Leroy Johnson, a laborer in the local sawmill who traveled to levee camps along the Mississippi River, died in a sawmill accident when Johnson was 8.
Johnson's early education was in the Arkansas City Colored School and in the levee camps where he accompanied his mother, who washed and ironed clothes and cooked for the laborers. He learned to do laundry early on and became a master cook.
In 1933, he and his mother joined the migration of southern blacks to the North, settling in Chicago. At 15, he entered a predominantly black high school with a desire to become a journalist. Emerging as a leader, he edited the school newspaper, became sales manager for the yearbook and was junior and senior class president. He attended the University of Chicago and Northwestern University.
Johnson received several awards, including the highest U.S. civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1996.
In 2002, Johnson named daughter Linda Johnson Rice the chief executive and chief operating officer of Johnson Publishing but retained the titles of chairman and publisher until his death. Rice said her father was active in company affairs.
"He was in his office and 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."
A son, John H. Johnson Jr., died at age 25.
In addition to his daughter, survivors include his wife, Eunice W. Johnson of Chicago, secretary-treasurer of Johnson Publishing; and a granddaughter.