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Johnson Publishing Company, the ex-publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines, files for bankruptcy

John H. Johnson, head of Johnson Publishing Co., sits in his Chicago office. He helped change how black people are portrayed by U.S. media. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Johnson Publishing Co., which launched Ebony and Jet magazines and was once one of the nation’s largest and most successful black-owned businesses, has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

Its magazines were defined by its photography and articles about African Americans, from doctors to lawyers to celebrities. They gave visibility to a community and a culture that had generally been overlooked by national magazines and other mainstream media. The company sold the magazines in 2016, meaning they will not be affected by Tuesday’s filing.

“This decision was not easy, nor should it have been,” the company said in a statement. “Johnson Publishing Company is an iconic part of American and African American history since our founding in 1942, and the company’s impact on society cannot be overstated.”

The brand pointed to a number of “factors outside of the company’s control” for its financial position. The buyer of the company’s media division hadn’t made its required payments, it said. Johnson Publishing’s cosmetics business, Fashion Fair, struggled to keep up with online competitors, and one of its largest retailers fell into bankruptcy. And it said it had to pay for a recall that stemmed from “quality issues” from one of its manufacturers.

“In short, Johnson Publishing Company was caught in a tidal wave of marketplace changes and business issues which, despite exhaustive efforts, could not be overcome,” the company said.

In filing for liquidation, Johnson Publishing listed assets of between $10 million and $50 million. It gave the same range for its liabilities and listed more than 200 creditors.

Ebony and Jet have been owned by the Texas-based equity firm Clear View Group since 2016. Ebony Media Operations, which includes the Ebony print magazine and website, as well as the online-only Jet publication, said it could not comment on the bankruptcy filing. Since selling the brands, Johnson Publishing has concentrated on its cosmetics division and archives.

Ebony debuted in November 1945, pledging to “mirror the happier side of Negro life — the positive, everyday achievements from Harlem to Hollywood. But when we talk about race as the No. 1 problem of America, we’ll talk turkey,” the Chicago Sun-Times reported. Jet came along six years later.

Both publications regularly reported on African American success stories but also confronted pervasive racism in the United States. Ebony’s first issue included an editorial that called for equal employment opportunities after World War II, according to the Sun-Times.

“The Negro soldier and sailor want to come home to an America that has wiped out the ‘white supremacy’ practices which meant the downfall of Hitlerism in Germany,” the editorial said. “They want to come home to a United States where a job no longer has a color.”

In 1955, Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley — whose 14-year-old son Emmett Till was abducted, tortured and killed that year for reportedly offending a white woman in Mississippi — called on Ebony and Jet to show the world what had been done to her son. Jet printed a photograph of the Chicago boy’s body in his coffin. Historians point to that decision as a focal point in the civil rights movement.

The company’s founder, John H. Johnson, was the grandson of slaves and became the first African American to make the Forbes List of the 400 Richest Americans, NPR reported. Johnson started out with a $500 loan borrowed against his mother’s furniture, according to the Sun-Times. His daughter told NPR that in order to buy one of his company’s offices, he brought a white man to be “the face of the purchase.”

“My father proceeded to act like he was just a janitor so he could just walk through the building and take a look at it,” Linda Johnson Rice, the company’s current CEO, said at the time.

Johnson initially steered away from political issues, said Kinohi Nishikawa, a professor of English and African American Studies at Princeton University. While mainstream media covered black communities during times of protest or violence, Johnson wanted to offer the stories that “no one else covered,” such as black beauty pageants, entertainers who were kept out of white-only venues and other aspects of black social life.

But, Nishikawa said, 1955 was “a turning point.”

“The murder of Till was so egregious, and it connected Johnson’s home base of Chicago to what was going on in the South in such a powerful way,” Nishikawa said. “He couldn’t turn away from it.”

Johnson Publishing reached its height in the 1970s, Nishikawa said, when Ebony, Jet and its other holdings — including a kids magazine and a book club reading list — saw some of its strongest readership. But circulation began to fade by the 1990s as other media outlets began reporting on black culture. Magazines started covering black celebrities, for example — an arena that was once a mainstay for Jet.

“Unfortunately, in some ways, the company became a victim of its own success,” Nishikawa said. “By arguing so much for the visibility of African American life, other companies wanted in.”

Johnson, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996, died in 2005 at age 87. His obituary in the Sun-Times described him as “the man who turned Ebony into gold.” Former president Bill Clinton was among 2,000 mourners at his funeral.

President Barack Obama, as a senator from Illinois, said the pages of Ebony and Jet filled a void. They showed young black men that their fates did not hinge on “some menial job or getting involved in crime,” and that “strong, capable black men were out there.”

“When I was growing up, basically the only black men on television were criminals or Flip Wilson dressed in drag as a character called Geraldine,” Obama said.

After Johnson’s death, the Rev. Jesse Jackson told the Chicago Tribune that Johnson’s lasting contribution was that he “put a human face on black people.”

He “gave us our first mirror to see ourselves as a people of dignity, a people with intelligence and beauty,” he said.