John Harold Johnson was born on January 19 in Arkansas City, Arkansas
MOVED TO CHICAGO
After visiting Chicago, Johnson, his mother and his stepfather moved to the city for more opportunities
Johnson published Negro Digest
Johnson’s second publication, Ebony, debuted November 1
Johnson created Jet Magazine
Johnson was named Publisher of the Year
Johnson published his autobiography to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his publishing company
Johnson died of congestive heart failure at age 87
John H. Johnson - Creator of Ebony Magazine
John H. Johnson, publisher of Ebony magazine and the founder of numerous businesses, has had enormous positive impact on the African American experience in the last century. When he tells his life story, he’s able to identify both the adversities that made him stronger and the people and circumstances that contributed to his success. His success was no accident or fluke, but a result of hard work, steadfast belief, and opportunities from other people who believed in him because of his standout skills as a speaker and a student.
Surviving on the edge of the Mississippi
His life started in Arkansas City, Arkansas. The grandson of slaves, he grew up in a shotgun house in a tiny, poor town on the edge of the Mississippi. In this town of 600, there were only two kinds of jobs for blacks: the sawmill or the levee. Poor black people lived with the double threats of flooding from the river and mistreatment by hostile whites. A saying in town was, I’ll see you “if I live and nothing happens.”
Thriving at a Distinguished Chicago High School
As with many successful people, he was grateful for the opportunities that helped him excel. He was particularly appreciative of his strong, intelligent mother who cared for him after his father died when he was only six years old. There was no high school for black teens in Arkansas. This led his mom and step-dad to move to Chicago so he could go to high school. However, the year was 1933 and the Great Depression was underway. His parents struggled to find work and the family was on welfare (then known as relief) for a year. He, however, thrived at a distinguished all black high school.
Becoming a Standout Public Speaker
In high school, the students teased him about his “Mamie-Mae” clothes and heavy Southern accent. He responded by practicing public speaking and his speaking skills became life defining. He became student council president and editor of the school newspaper and the class yearbook. When he graduated, he received a full scholarship to University of Chicago.
Johnson’s Exceptional First Job
Again, his high school achievements helped opened doors. He thought he couldn’t afford living expenses at college, but a black businessman heard him speak at the Urban League and offered him a job that allowed John H. Johnson to support himself through college. That first professional job working for a black-owned business taught him numerous skills that he later applied to a business of his own.
Major Cultural Impact through Ebony Magazine
John H. Johnson’s success is a result of great effort and belief. His most recognized achievement was creating Ebony magazine. His other achievements, in brief, include other businesses and publications, documenting the civil rights movement and African American history, and major charitable donations. He’s also received numerous awards and recognitions, including being the first African American named in the Forbes’ list of 400 wealthiest Americans.
Did You Know?
- Johnson also created the magazine, Jet, which was printed from 1951 through 2014, when it became an online presence only. Jet chronicled the Civil Rights Movement.
- The impetus to move to Chicago from Arkansas came when Johnson and his mother visited the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.
- His high school classmates included Nat King Cole and Redd Foxx.
If you are interested in hearing John H. Johnson talk about his life in his own words you can find a series of ten outstanding short videos at the Visionary Project or on YouTube. Highly inspirational!
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