The Lost Story of John H. Johnson’s Empire

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New book about Johnson Publishing Company a refreshing look about a family dynasty

By Erick Johnson

It was the house that John H. Johnson built. Today, Johnson Publishing is gone after years of decline. Buried in the negative publicity is the forgotten story of a man who made headlines after using his mother’s furniture for collateral to build an empire that would change Black America forever.

It’s a story that’s getting a fresh look in a new book by Dr. Margena Christian. In 2014, Christian and four other staff members were let go as part the company’s downsizing. She was the last editor who knew Johnson personally, before she was let go.

Titled “Empire: The House that John H. Johnson Built,” Christian’s book is one of the hottest reads this summer. The book is in big demand at the Chicago Public Library, where their many readers must wait online to check it out.

In 1985, Christian was hired as an editor after being interviewed by John H. Johnson and his daughter Linda, who was then president and chief operating officer at JPC. Johnson H. Johnson became her mentor and served in various professional positions that helped cement Johnson Publishing Company as the premier media company presenting news of Black entertainment, history, sports and lifestyles.

Christian created Empire after writing her dissertation in graduate school on John H. Johnson. Christian said she did not initially plan to write a book, she said she felt that “it was necessary to document the history” because she was the bridge between the old and the new generation.

“I was afraid that one day no one will remember John H. Johnson.”

In researching the book, Christian used information from various sources, including John H. Johnson’s memoir, Succeeding Against the Odds. Reverend Jesse Jackson, whom Johnson hired after he moved from North Carolina, wrote the book’s foreword. But Unlike, Succeeding Against the Odds, Christian’s book gives readers a nice peak into the world at Johnson Publishing headquarters where celebrities across the globe visited and gave many employees a job that many Blacks dream about.

Empire is based on Christian’s own experience during her 19-year career at Johnson Publishing Company’s former headquarters at 820 S. Michigan Avenue. Readers will learn how loyal Johnson was to his race. His attorney was Black. His accountant was Black. He felt uncomfortable eating with White people and often didn’t trust them.

The book details the passion and spirit in Johnson as he led editorial meetings with his Ebony and Jet journalists. Christian talked about JHJ’s sharing stories about his encounters, from Ray Charles to Nat King Cole, who he attended high school with at Wendell Phillips.

One of the highlights of the book is a detailed account of how Johnson decided to publish the photo of Emmett Till’s brutally disfigured face after two white men killed him in Mississippi in 1955.

According to Christian’s book, Mamie Till-Mobley contacted Johnson, asking him to publish the photos after they ran in the Chicago Defender. Only over a decade old, both Ebony and Jet were already struggling to get white companies to advertise in the magazines and there was concern that the racially charged story would further damage these efforts. One co-managing editor told Johnson, “Boss, do you know what you’re doing? Do you know how many white people you’re going to anger and all the things they can do to you?” Johnson replied, “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m going to do it anyway. You have to dare to do things you’re afraid to do.”

The book also includes information about Johnson Publishing Company’s ventures and how they promoted the careers of some of America’s most successful Blacks.

Aretha Franklin served as the first celebrity spokesperson of the Ebony Fashion Fair Cosmetic line. Former Vogue Editor-at-Large Andre Leon Talley got his start in 1982 after Eunice Johnson hired him as fashion editor at Ebony. In 2003, a new section in Jet called “In the Spotlight,” highlighted a rising entertainment mogul named Tyler Perry.

The book also touches on the funeral of JHJ, where the absence of Oprah Winfrey was noticed by some mourners. She sparred with then Chicago Defender Executive Editor Roland Martin, who mentioned it in the newspaper.

The book also mentions Johnson Publishing’s challenges in its early days.

White companies initially didn’t place advertisements in Ebony and Jet. Because high end stores like Neiman Marcus and Marshall Fields did not carry its cosmetic products for five years. Ebony Fashion Fair lost $1 million before it turned a profit. And for a fruitless 10 years, Johnson sent an advertising representative to Detroit every week for 10 years before Johnson Publishing got its first automobile account.

Those hard days gave way to the gilded era of Johnson Publishing, which in addition to Ebony, Jet and Fashion Fair, included radio station WJPC, the travel service Ebony-Jetours, as well as a book division that produced 42 books. They include the “EBONY Cookbook,” The “EBONY Book of Black Achievement” and Executive Editor Lerone Bennett Jr’s “Before the Mayflower,” which was one of the division’s best sellers.

After being reminded of the company’s storied past and extraordinary achievements by Christian’s book, there is pride but also pain from the present day fall of Johnson Publishing Company.

 

John H. Johnson died in 2005. His wife died in 2010. This summer, Johnson Publishing filed bankruptcy after years of decline under Chairman Linda Johnson Rice.

In 2010 and 2017, the headquarters that John H. Johnson built on storied Michigan Avenue was sold twice, before 3L Real Estate converted the building into modern apartments. In 2016 Ebony and Jet were sold to the Clear View Group, which has since let go of most of its writers. Johnson Publishing Company’s prized, four million photographic archives collection last month was sold for $30 million to four foundations

Empire doesn’t provide much inside detail about the decline of Johnson Publishing Company, but says without John Johnson’s ongoing vision, many “believed that mismanagement and poor leadership rerouted the company’s course.”

In an interview with the Crusader, Christian said amid the negative publicity about Johnson Publishing Company, her book aims to preserve the legacy and positive achievements that established John H. Johnson as a pioneering entertainment mogul who dared to dream big.

Empire: The House that John H. Johnson Built can be purchased on Amazon for $15.39 paperback or $17.82 hardcover.

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