Building a Voice: John Johnson Gets His Start

John H. Johnson went from living on welfare to living in extreme wealth, becoming the first African American to make it onto the Forbes 400 list of the nation’s richest individuals. By the time he died in 2005, his empire was worth an estimated $600 million. Not only did he amass great wealth, but he also gave African Americans a voice at a time when they were both relatively invisible and discriminated against in the mainstream culture.

John Harold Johnson was born on January 19, 1918 in Arkansas City, Arkansas. From an early age, Johnson learned what it was to overcome obstacles in life. When he was just eight years old, his father, Leroy Johnson, was killed in a sawmill accident. Johnson’s mother, Gertrude Jenkins, took over as the central force in his life. Despite the tragedy, Gertrude was determined to see her son succeed.

The town where Johnson was born offered little in the way of opportunities for young black children. There were no high schools and Johnson was forced to repeat grade eight in order to just keep learning. Unsatisfied with her son’s prospects, Gertrude moved the family to Chicago after working as a camp cook for two years in order to save enough money for the train ride. But, it would not be an easy road ahead for the family.

The family arrived in Chicago in the middle of the Great Depression and they were forced to rely on welfare for two years. This was a character-shaping experience for Johnson. “Both my mother and I were determined that we weren’t going to stay on welfare,” he said. “We always worked toward doing better, toward having a better life. We never had any doubts that we would”

Living with family friends in their new city, Johnson enrolled in Wendell Phillips High School and later, DuSable High School. Here, he flourished, becoming junior and senior class president, editor of the school newspaper, presiding officer of the student council, and leader of the student forum and French club. Because of his achievements, Johnson was selected to speak at his class graduation.

After finishing high school in just three years, Johnson found himself unemployed. It was an Urban League Luncheon for outstanding students that would change the course of Johnson’s life. Here, at the age of 18, Johnson met Harry H. Pace, the president of Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Co., the largest black-owned business in the North at the time. When Pace heard about Johnson’s desire to attend university but his inability to do so because of the high cost of tuition, Pace hired Johnson part-time. While working at Supreme, Johnson also enrolled part-time at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University.

In his autobiography, Johnson highlights the importance of this meeting: “Somebody asked me once what I would change if I could live my life over again. I replied that I wouldn't change anything. So many things happened along the way, maybe by accident, maybe by Providence, that I would be afraid to change any of the events that led to the meeting with Harry H. Pace and the big ebony road that changed and defined my life.”

Johnson quickly rose in the company’s ranks to become the editor of the company newspaper. One of his other major duties was to prepare a summary of black-related current events for the Pace to keep him abreast of the changing times. It was this experience that would give him the idea and the confidence to start his own business.

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