Since its first issue appeared on newsstands in April 1970, featuring a Black woman crowned with an Afro and all of her regal glory, Essence’s adoration for Black women still holds a place in today’s changing landscape.
Founded at the height of the Black Power Movement, social justice was always a core editorial component. Edward Lewis, Clarence O. Smith, Cecil Hollingsworth and Jonathan Blount recognized that Black women were an overlooked demographic and saw Essence Communications, Inc. (ECI) as an opportunity to tap the virtually untouched market of Black women readers.
Originally titled Sapphire Magazine, the publication was born out of the Black Is Beautiful movement, representing a shift towards Afrocentric pride. Its founders aimed to have the title reflect the gem-like resilience and beauty of Black women, including the richness of their history and culture.
In essence, the durability of a sapphire is second only to diamond, but the name change was attributed to readers’ likelihood to associate the magazine with the harmful and disrespectful “sapphire” stereotype.
Essence now exists in a different time than it was created.
Essence in the making
In 1968, Lewis, a First National City Bank executive trainee, Smith, a Prudential insurance salesman, Hollingsworth, a graphics consultant, and Blount, an advertising salesman, founded Hollingsworth Group before transitioning to publishers of the first general-interest magazine aimed at African-American women.
It was during a time when “Black Capitalism” was both a Washington policy initiative and thrust of black business and civil rights leaders promoting self-determination and empowerment.
Despite it all, Essence Communications Inc. remained a perennial on the BE 100s until Time Inc. acquired the entire company in 2005.
Essence magazine started as a publication that celebrated the beauty and potential of African American women, and triumphed as a voice for them but not without tribulations. Obtaining funding was an issue, three editors-in-chief left within the first year, and Blount and Hollingsworth resigned after four years.
As the company’s majority owners, Lewis and Smith continued to capitalize on their focus during their 35-year partnership. The next step was ramping up product diversification to generate additional exposure and revenues.
The magazine went on to enlist a strong voice and direction with editor-in-chief Marcia Ann Gillespie until the owners made the game-changing move of elevating Susan Taylor to Editor-In-Chief in 1981. Taylor served as the publication’s face and voice for more than 20 years.
Taylor, who started out as a beauty writer and held many roles at the magazine before ultimately stepping in her chief role, only built on the founder’s legacy, taking the magazine to new heights. From empowering wellness content and monthly columns Say Brother and Back Talk to powerful Black imagery and photography, Taylor strived to not only bring Black women’s deepest truths alive on the pages of the magazine but also those of Black men.
During Taylor’s reign, the monthly readership surpassed five million people and captured the attention of Black women across the globe.
Essence Music Festival
Known for being the “party with a purpose,” the first-ever Essence Music Festival kicked off in 1995 to celebrate the company’s 25th anniversary. The visionaries behind the festival, Lewis and Smith, would eventually grow it into the nation’s largest Black culture and music attraction, drawing roughly 500,000 attendees to New Orleans every year.
Today, the festival is presented by Essence magazine featuring entertainment, empowerment, and cultural experiences during the day and performances each night. Bringing in millions of revenue for the city of New Orleans and state of Louisiana, the July 4th weekend of events also strives for capital access for female entrepreneurs and glowing partnerships to help empower communities.
During the 2014 festival season, the National Women’s Business Council (NWBC) leveraged its platform on access to capital to reach black female entrepreneurs by participating in a pitch competition hosted by PowerMoves.
Launched in 2018, AT&T Dream in Black partnered with the Essence Music Festival to connect, empower, and uplift Black and Afro-Latinx communities through a full weekend of experiences and opportunities.
A legacy continues
Back in 1997, Ed Lewis, Essence Communications co-founder, told BLACK ENTERPRISE that he never ruled out the possibility of selling the publication. “Anything is possible, but we have to see how the world is conducting business and be mindful of our shareholders’ interest.”
In 2000, Time Inc. purchased a 49% percent stake from owners Smith and Lewis, BLACK ENTERPRISE previously reported. The company bought the remaining 51% percent in 2005, marking the first time in the company’s 34-year history, that it was no longer Black-owned, and completely under white ownership.
Twelve years later, in 2017, the now-defunct Time Inc. decided to sell Essence Communications Inc. to Shea Moisture founder Richelieu Dennis. Dennis launched Essence Ventures, LLC. to continue the legacy of the magazine. Essence magazine became Black owned again and still is as of today.
BLACK ENTERPRISE‘s Chief Content Officer Derek T. Dingle described the transaction as “groundbreaking,” adding that this is an exemplary move of how African-American entrepreneurs “can execute with vision and wherewithal to return valuable institutions to African American ownership.”