“The reason I survived is that I refused to believe the signs that said I was defeated. And I dared to do things I couldn’t afford to do.”
Today in 1918, the Founder of Johnson Publishing Company, John H. Johnson was born in a tin-roofed house near the river levees in Arkansas City, Arkansas. Born in the last year of World War I, the mastermind behind EBONY Magazine, JET Magazine, Fashion Fair Cosmetics, and a host of other publications and works, created a legacy that is still unmatched today. Here are five things you may have not known about this icon.
He added the ‘H’ to his name.
Mr. Johnson was born Johnny Johnson but it was on the eve of his high school commencement at DuSable High School in Chicago that he would make the transition to John H. Johnson. At his graduation, he spoke on ‘The Task That Lies Before Us’. “The task, I said, was excellence linked to service.” At the suggestion of his teacher, Miss Herrick, he picked the middle name “Harold” and a legend was born.
There’s more to the $500 startup story.
We all know the story of how he started his dynasty with a $500 loan that he obtained by putting his mother’s furniture up for collateral. Here’s where the story gains a bit more detail: While working at a Black insurance company as a young man, he collected stories from the Negro press and became one of the most knowledgeable people in Black Chicago. It was during his time at the company, that came up with the idea to start a commercial Black magazine that addressed the issues of Black people at that time. At his day job, he ran the Speedaumat, an addressing machine which kept the names and addresses of the 20,000 people who paid their insurance premiums to the company. He decided to send a letter to every person on the list, asking for a two-dollar prepaid subscription to a new Black magazine. His employer allowed him to use the names and the machine but had to take care of mailing the letters. The cost of the postage? You guessed it, $500.
He was the first Black person to own property on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.
Mr. Johnson moved JPC headquarters to the high profile location on Tuesday, December 5, 1971. The all-electric building was the first Chicago loop building exclusively designed and constructed by a Black owned corporation. Mayor Richard Daley said it was significant that a company headed by a Black man had constructed a building near the site where a Black man had founded Chicago. Pulitzer Prize-winner Gwendolyn Brooks read a poem she wrote at the opening ceremony and Michigan Avenue was closed for the celebration. The 11-story building even had a driveway that permitted him to drive into the basement parking lot from Michigan Avenue. This special feature had to be granted by the Mayor of Chicago himself.
He once acted as a financial advisor to Michael Jackson.
His business acumen allowed him to work and move in exclusive circles. He was a part of Michael’s financial committee which was made up of the “King of Pop” and his accountant, Marshall Gelfand, Michael’s attorney, John Branca, two outsiders, producer David Geffen and himself. “I’m on the committee because Michael called one day and asked for advice, saying he didn’t want to end up broke like so many athletes and entertainers,” Mr. Johnson shared in his autobiography.
In 1982, he became the first African American to appear on the Forbes 400.
‘I’ve never counted, but I don’t quarrel with the figures listed in the Forbes 400 — and I don’t apologize. Whatever the correct figure, I earned it, and I’m still earning it,” he shared. “I work harder today than I did when I started out.” This major accomplishment was just one of many over his lifetime: In 1987, Black Enterprise named Mr. Johnson ‘Entrepreneur of the Decade’. In the same period, the Better Boys Club of Chicago named him Chicagoan of the year, the first Black person honored, and he was also inducted into the Publishing Hall of Fame.
Watch below as he talks about the role of EBONY and JET in the Civil Rights Movement (including be called personally by Martin Luther King, Jr.) in a past interview with The Visionary Project.