If you are Black and grew up in the baby boomer generation, there was one person who epitomized African-American business success. John H. Johnson was a role model to African-Americans well before the term would be applied to countless figures of lesser talent and less impressive track records. When social critics lamented the lack of Blacks who had “made it” outside the fields of sports and entertainment, the exception to the rule and the proof that achievement beyond these endeavors was possible was John Johnson.
Johnson’s passing in August at the age of 87 was not the end of his legacy. Indeed, it seems that only now is Black America taking the full measure of the impact this remarkable entrepreneur had on history, business, the civil rights movement and the nation. Only by examining his accomplishments, and hearing the testimonies of those he influenced, is a true appreciation of his work beginning to emerge.
What made Johnson’s success unique is the fact that his efforts changed the world. His publications—of which Ebony and Jet are just two of 12 titles he started—not only chronicled the change taking place in African-American life in the post–World War II era, they also inspired change in how African-Americans viewed themselves and the world they struggled to live in equitably with whites.
Johnson’s longevity and independence set him apart from Madame C. J. Walker and A. G. Gaston, two Blacks who also built fortunes. He was a media mogul who built a company that, after more than six decades, is still diversified, is still No. 1 in its field, still produces more than half a billion dollars in sales and still is privately owned by his family.
It’s all but impossible to explain to anyone under the age of 40 what the media world was like for African-Americans when Johnson’s second magazine, Ebony, came into being in 1943. Newspapers and magazines were devoid of images of Black folks. It was a time when nothing presented a national image of Blacks in an accurate, positive or thorough manner. Looking back, it may even seem as though the opportunity for a magazine that filled this void was obvious and its success all but assured. Such a perspective ignores history and the realities of the times.
Others had tried similar ventures, but none had succeeded. Johnson’s persistence trumped failure. He was a pragmatic businessman who sought opportunities and took risks. When things didn’t work out, he cut his losses and moved on. Some have suggested that his editorial formula of positive stories highlighting Black success was indicative of a “safe” and conservative business strategy in which Johnson would not take on the establishment. Publishing pioneers who did tackle political issues—Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm of Freedom’s Journal, for example—are hailed for their daring. Few remember that Cornish and Russwurm’s weekly newspaper, the first published by Blacks in the United States, lasted only two years.
Johnson Publishing Co. did the seemingly impossible. Its founder understood and pursued an editorial mission that served millions of Black readers well while building an institution capable of sustaining itself. His success also enabled him to invest millions of dollars in the civil rights movement and to have an impact on racial justice and social change.
Over the past 63 years, Johnson employed thousands of African-Americans and gave them the experience that many used to build their own successful enterprises. He never took on partners, but assisted and invested in numerous ventures started by others, including Essence magazine, in which he became a shareholder. Rather than being labeled conservative, his track record suggests superior business savvy.
Perhaps most important, John Johnson gave us proof that achieving entrepreneurial success at the highest level was possible for any African-American, regardless of circumstance. Not only was it possible, but, through perseverance, he showed us that you can do it your way and against all odds. No one else has ever done it as he did, or to the same magnitude.
Ken Smikle is president of Target Market News, www.targemarketnews.com , a Chicago firm that monitors African-American marketing and media.