With Bankruptcy Filing, An End of An Era at Johnson Publishing - Black Enterprise
Black Enterprise Magazine Summer 2019 Issue

Creating shockwaves throughout the African American community, Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Co., the once-iconic publishing company that for years had been one of the nation’s largest black-owned business, filed for bankruptcy yesterday. After years of trying to remake the former BE 100s company that launched such brands as Ebony and Jet magazines, it succumbed after failing to find new funding sources.

The liquidation of its assets marks the end of an era.

According to the Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition, filed in the Northern District of Illinois, JPC has between 200 and 999 creditors, as well as between $10 million and $50 million in both assets and liabilities. In making the announcement, the company said in a press release that it was “caught in a tidal wave of marketplace changes and business issues which, despite exhaustive efforts, could not be overcome.”

Over the years, financial troubles forced the firm to sell major assets. In 2016, the company sold Ebony and Jet magazines to Texas-based private equity firm CVG Group LLC, which still manages those media properties, and sold its headquarters in 2010. The company, which still owns the Fashion Fair cosmetics business as well as an expansive archive of about 4 million images and thousands of videos, will place those properties on the auction block.

The Legacy of John H. Johnson

For close to 50 years, BLACK ENTERPRISE has covered the company, founded in 1942 by John H. Johnson, who was named one of the most important African Americans in business. Under Johnson’s stewardship, JPC’s publications touched the lives of millions of African Americans in every facet of life, sharing with the world their talents and potential, exposing injustice and racism, and shattering social and commercial barriers.

Johnson Publishing Founder John H. Johnson

BE named Johnson its Entrepreneur of the Decade in 1987 for building JPC into a global powerhouse, chronicled as one of the greatest moments in black business in 2017. That article noted that the founder, chairman, and publisher of the storied enterprise served as an inspirational force for generations of African American entrepreneurs:

As an eager young man, Johnson got his start when his mother used her furniture as collateral for a $500 loan to start his first publication, Negro Digest, in 1942, which served as the launching pad for him to create the largest African American publishing company in the world. Seemingly, there wasn’t a single African American household in late 20th century America in which you could not find a copy of Ebony or Jet on the coffee table. And to share the impact his publications had, one can point to a powerful example that predates his inclusion on the BE 100s by roughly two decades that BE shared in our October 2005 tribute on this legendary force:

 

In September 1955, Johnson made a decision that forever shook the world. Not one to vacillate on any issue, he revealed to millions the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, a Chicago youngster who had been bludgeoned and shot in Mississippi for reportedly whistling at a white woman. Readers found the heinous example of Jim Crow-brutality on the pages of Jet, Johnson’s 4-year-old weekly news digest. Shortly thereafter, other black publications followed Jet’s lead in publishing the photos. It galvanized clusters of African Americans nationwide to protest such senseless acts of violence. In one bold move, the determined 37-year-old publisher helped launch the civil rights movement.

That was but one example of Johnson’s power. For six decades, he made full use of his wealth and influence to shape American history, while using his publications—primarily Jet and his flagship, Ebony—to cover the battle for civil rights and chronicle every major event that depicted the trials and triumphs of African Americans.

By 1987, when he was fittingly honored on the 15th anniversary of the rankings of the nation’s largest black businesses at a gala in downtown Manhattan, this rugged individualist had built an empire that touched the lives of millions through publications, radio stations, television programs, fashion shows, and haircare and cosmetic products. He also owned Supreme Life Insurance Co., his former employer and one of the nation’s largest black financial services firms listed on the BE INSURANCE COMPANIES list. In addition to his collection of companies, Johnson held a 20% stake in another iconic BE 100s company: Essence Communications Inc., publisher of the black women’s magazine Essence.

How did he do it? It took sweat, intellect, and moxie. When the company first appeared on our list in 1973, JPC grossed $23.1 million. In 1987, it had grown to an enterprise that grossed $173.5 million and employed 1,800 people. Despite its size and stature, it was still very much a family-owned business: His wife, Eunice, among other areas, ran the Fashion Fair cosmetics line, and his daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, rose through the ranks to eventually take its helm.

Linda Johnson Rice

In sharing his greatest inspiration as an entrepreneur, he said: In a broad sense, I admire any black man who succeeds. There are so many obstacles throughout life that I am surprised that black businessmen have done as well as they have. I guess I am inspired by every black man who meets payroll, every black man who continues to overcome barriers and beat the odds.


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