John H. Johnson: The Icon

The founder of one of America's largest black business empires used his wealth and power to raise the social and economic status of African Americans

Linda Johnson Rice succeeds her father as company chairman

Ebony would not succeed. And pray for the errant executive or editor who was sent to the “give ‘em hell” room in his office. At the same time, Johnson would make steak and lobster available to all employees in the company cafeteria for $1 and furnish valued personnel with generous perks to stay in the JPC fold. His laser-beam focus on the advancement of his company didn’t allow for a board of advisers. It also left no room for requests that may serve as a distraction–including the offer of an ambassadorship from the president of the U. S..

“My mother had the greatest influence on my life. She gave me hope that one day, somehow, I would triumph.”

Born in 1918 in Arkansas City, Arkansas, Johnson–a grandson of slaves–gained his relentless drive from his late mother, Gertrude Johnson Williams. His father was killed in a sawmill accident when “young Johnny” was 8 years old. But his mother was determined not to let poverty, Jim Crow, or any other circumstance diminish the aspirations she held for her only child.

“His mother was his great example,” says Ebony Executive Editor Emeritus Lerone Bennett Jr. “She taught him to dream and to dare and to believe in himself. She provided, of course, the first $500 in collateral, but then she insisted that he get an education. She refused to believe in failure and she passed that on to him.”

In 1936, a chance meeting placed Johnson on the path to his destiny. He met Harry Pace, president of Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Co., the largest black-owned business in Chicago at the time, at an Urban League luncheon, and Pace offered Johnson a part-time job to defray college expenses. By 1939, Johnson quit college to accept a full-time position as editor of Supreme’s employee magazine. The job required him to write a summary of events in black America each week and, after showing the publication to friends eager for such information, Johnson came up with the notion of creating his own version of Reader’s Digest.

“Entrepreneurship is personal. It is what you can do almost by yourself. When I started out, I did not see the company the way it is today. And I think if I did, I probably would have been so overwhelmed with my meager resources that I wouldn’t have started it.”

At the time, Johnson did not have a nickel to invest in a magazine startup. Unable to get a bank loan, Johnson turned to his mother for the necessary funds. In a story that is now legend, she put up her furniture as collateral for a $500 loan to start production of his publication. Johnson also got help from Pace, who let him use Supreme’s mailing list of 20,000 policyholders to solicit $2 subscriptions. He was able to raise another $6,000 in capital.

On Nov. 1, 1942, Negro Digest (later renamed Black World) was launched. In the early days, JPC’s staff consisted of Johnson and his wife, Eunice. Despite resistance from newsstand retailers and Jim

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