and Elgin Watch Co. to tell them to do the same. By 1948, the magazine became profitable, gaining such key advertisers as PepsiCo, Colgate, Beechnut, and Seagram–all convinced by Johnson that they would increase revenues and market share by reaching black consumers. Even with the challenges of securing these ads, he insisted that the creative material included black models.
Johnson was innovative enough to create product extensions of his flagship brand. In 1958, he and his wife launched Ebony Fashion Fair, a traveling fashion show that exposed African Americans to elegance and style, promoted the magazine, and raised millions of dollars for the United Negro College Fund and other black charities.
Through his inventiveness, Johnson managed to achieve a feat that eluded many entrepreneurs, black or white: He was a millionaire before the age of 35.
“I’ve never let the inability to get capital keep me from growing and surviving. If you believe in something, to have the commitment is really more important than having the money.”
Johnson began to expand his publishing empire by launching a myriad of publications, including Jet in 1951. “I think of all of the successful African American entrepreneurs–especially those in media–he took more risk than anyone. We give him credit for establishing Negro Digest, Ebony, and Jet, but the fact of the matter is that he started 13 publications. There was Black Stars, Ebony Man, Ebony Jr., Ebony South African, and a little-known magazine that was similar to Jet, Hue magazine,” says Kenneth Smikle, president of Target Market News, a Chicago-based research firm that tracks African American marketing and media. “He would take the risk to do something different and put his money behind it and try to make it work.”
Johnson’s expansion wasn’t embraced by all in the African American community. After the launch of Ebony, black newspaper publishers criticized him for poaching readers, advertisers, and employees. He didn’t let the criticism keep him from moving forward with such activities.
As Johnson’s largesse and influence on national and international issues grew, and JPC helped advance African Americans in the 1960s and ’70s through its coverage of issues in Ebony and Jet, the company grew into a major force in media. Often criticized for its coverage of celebrities–what Johnson saw as getting readers “to take castor oil by putting it in orange juice”–Ebony devoted entire issues to such topics as the black power movement and black-on-black crime. As a result, JPC cultivated a circulation of more than 1 million and developed the first black-oriented magazine in the country to attain mass circulation. By 1971, JPC had moved into a new 11-story headquarters on Chicago’s fashionable Michigan Avenue, becoming the first black-owned business to be located inside Chicago’s Loop. And in 1982 (the year after the death of his only son, John Johnson Jr., of sickle cell anemia), Johnson became the first black to appear on the Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest Americans.
From his gleaming tower, Johnson further diversified into radio, television, and beauty products, including the creation of