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Pioneering Efforts: Johnson Fulfills his Vision
With that, Johnson went to one of the few banks that did offer loans to ‘colored people’. Using his mother’s new furniture as a collateral for the loan, Citizens Loan Corporation agreed to give Johnson the $500 he needed to start his own business. He created Johnson Publishing Co. and set out to launch his first magazine, Negro Digest. With the $500, Johnson sent mailings to the 20,000 Supreme Life policyholders offering discount subscriptions to this new publication. When 3,000 people responded with their $2 annual fee, Johnson had the $6,000 he needed to get to work.
After just eight months, Negro Digest had a monthly circulation of 50,000. In 1943, Johnson struck another coup when he succeeded in convincing first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to write an article for the magazine entitled, “If I were a Negro”. Circulation doubled almost immediately. “After that, we never looked back,” he said.
In 1945, high off the success of his first magazine, Johnson launched Ebony, a picture magazine that highlighted the achievements of black Americans. For the first time ever, companies were beginning to advertise in the black media as well as use black models. Ebony’s first two issues immediately sold out, making it a mainstay in the industry. This success also encouraged Johnson to launch yet another magazine, Jet, in 1951. This was to be a pocket-sized weekly news magazine targeted at black Americans. Again, Johnson’s business instincts proved infallible with Jet’s first issue selling out immediately. Within six weeks, Jet had a weekly circulation of over 300,000.
With the success of all three of his publications, Johnson began branching out. His company started publishing books, running a book club and creating a high-end cosmetics line for women with darker skin. He also soon became the first African American in Chicago to own a broadcasting outlet after the purchase of two radio stations.
Johnson rose from the despair of poverty to become one of the leaders in his industry. Johnson passed away on August 8, 2005, but the fruits of his labour continue to leave a lasting impact. Ebony remains the largest black-owned magazine in the world while the Johnson Publishing Co. is one of the world’s largest minority-owned businesses as well as the largest black-owned publishing firm. In addition to his spot-on entrepreneurial instincts, Johnson will forever be remembered for his contribution to the equal rights movement and his attempt to give a voice to those who had none before.
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