Crow laws in the South, Johnson grew circulation from 5,000 to 50,000 within eight months by developing a network of salesmen who sold the publication on buses, streetcars, and even in cotton fields. He scored an editorial coup when he convinced First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to dictate a column on race relations.
In 1945, with the end of World War II and GIs returning home, Johnson saw new opportunities in publishing. Through informal research, he discovered that large numbers of blacks bought Life, the popular pictorial magazine. Why couldn’t there be a counterpart to Life, a publication that celebrated the milestones of African Americans? On Eunice’s suggestion, Johnson called the magazine Ebony, after the fine, dark wood from tropical trees. The publication became an instant hit as readers swarmed newsstands to read about Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color line or Lena Horne’s big splash in Hollywood.
Up until the emergence of Ebony, images of blacks in popular culture consisted of Stepin Fetchit and Aunt Jemima. “Gently, but relentlessly, he pushed aside the image of servitude, the mean and ugly face of Jim Crow, the centuries of images that reinforced race supremacy and race majority,” says the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the civil rights activist who grew up reading the pages of Ebony. “Through John Johnson’s publications, we saw ourselves, our culture, and our potential.”
As his publications wrote about discriminatory practices, Johnson, too, had to contend with the same racism as his readership. When he purchased his first building, Johnson hired a white lawyer to handle the transaction while he disguised himself as a janitor to inspect the property.
“We had to persuade people that it was in their best interests to reach out to black consumers in a positive way. It was like trying to get them to put money in a foreign market.”
By 1946, the Audit Bureau of Circulation revealed that Ebony’s paid circulation exceeded 300,000, making it the most widely read black publication in the world. Ebony, however, grew too fast and created a cash flow crunch for the upstart publisher. Subscription sales and novelty items weren’t enough to maintain the company’s long-term growth. He needed advertising.
Johnson’s approach to gaining advertising may seem commonplace today, but it was truly revolutionary in 1940s America. He became the first publisher to try to convince advertisers of the value of segmented marketing. Using Ebony as a bully pulpit, he wrote that “big advertisers of consumer items failed to recognize the immensity of the Negro market,” which was greater than $10 billion at the time.
After repeated rejections, Johnson made a breakthrough. When he discovered that Eugene McDonald, the CEO of leading radio manufacturer Zenith, was obsessed with polar exploration, Johnson tracked down Matthew Henson, the African American who was the first man to reach the North Pole. He obtained Henson’s signature on a copy of his autobiography. After receiving the book from Johnson as a gift, McDonald placed Zenith ads in Ebony and he called the chairmen of Amour Food Co., Swift Packing Co.,