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The following program is from WNET 13. The following program is from WNET 13. Black Journal is an on-the-air magazine reporting on the personalities, ideas and issues that affect Black America. It attempts to achieve balance by reporting from a black perspective.
Did you have much money when you started publishing? No, I had no money at all. As a matter of fact, the $500 which I started the company with was borrowed on my mother's furniture. Few privately owned black enterprises have reached the level of sophistication and financial success enjoyed by the Johnson Publishing Company. Their four magazines reach over half of all black families. Last year alone, this business and its subsidiaries grossed over $21 million, making it a literal empire in the world of black communications. But before we can examine the development of this empire, we must first look at the man behind it, editor publisher John H. Johnson. He has recognized nationally in the communications industry as a leading black publisher. Recently, he was named publisher of the year at the magazine Publishers Association Convention.
He has served in various functions under three presidents. Under President Kennedy and Johnson, he was appointed as a special ambassador. He was a member of President Nixon's Committee for the observance of the 25th anniversary of the United Nations. However, a lasting monument to his life and philosophy is the new $11 story $8 million Johnson Publishing Building, which opened last May in downtown Chicago. At the dedication ceremonies for the building, senior editor LaRone Bennett spoke of the Johnson Empire and the man who started it all. We are here this morning because one man decided some 30 years ago that we would gather here one day or someplace near here. We are here this morning to help this man celebrate a dream which he made into a reality. It was this man, a man like him, that the poet had in mind when he said that no daring is fatal.
Born in poverty in Arkansas some 54 years ago, he came to Chicago in 1933 and embarked on a career which has made him one of the most creative businessmen of this era. It is a very great honor to introduce to you the President of Johnson Publishing Company, Mr. John H. Johnson. Thank you very much. It is not a day of personal triumph for one man. It is rather a day of promise for all men and all women. Men and women who believe that the cutting edge of hope is sharper than the bars of indifference and bias. For that reason and for others as well, I would like to share this day with friends, relatives and associates who helped to make it possible.
The message is also conveyed by what is perhaps the largest collection of black art in the world. The black art, the horizontal, the glass, the marble, the fabrics, the warm colors, all these elements integrated into one grand design express the essential meaning of our firm. It expresses openness, openness to truth, openness to light, openness to all of the events swirling in all of the black communities of our country. The building that we are now in that is a new, very modern, impressive edifice. Do you see that as a monument? Do you see that as a historical moving away from point for the future of black communications? I see it as a monument for black communications. I see it as an example of what black people can do.
I see it really, as I said, on the opening of this building, as more or less of a return in a business sense and in a communication sense to land which is rightfully ours. This city was founded by a black man, a short distance from where we're sitting. For many, many years, black people didn't own in a land down yet. Black people came downtown to give people money. I think it is significant that black people have returned to this spot on Lake Michigan, which was founded by a black man many, many years ago. Well, who was that black man? And John Point, John Point, who founded this city and the city tries desperately to keep that information under cover. But DeSable founded this city. He created the first house in this area. He was the first non-Indian resident of this place.
He recognized the possibilities, the geographical and the economic possibilities of this place. And he was the founder of Chicago. We were talking a few minutes ago about the systematic attempt to keep certain information from black people and from white people. This information has been systematically kept from the people of this city. At the same time, tasteful and spectacular, the $8 million 11 story Johnson Building officially opened May 16, 1972. It is fitting that this first office building built by a black man in Chicago's prestigious loop has become a city show place. Together with its $250,000 Afro-American art collection and its $6,000 black-oriented library, it is intended as a bold and positive statement about the company's commitment to the black people it serves. From the soaring 18-foot high lobby walls covered with bronze to the beautiful fabrics and colors throughout, the building was according to the architect designed as a place where black creativity could blossom and where the production of black magazines could be a joy.
Mr. Johnson, the move from your previous offices at 1820 South Michigan to 820 South Michigan is really only 10 city blocks in Chicago. Is there any other significance to it? Yes, there is because I first purchased the building back in 1949. And it was on a borderline neighborhood as far as racist concern. And when I first tried to buy the building as a black person, I was refused. And so I had several choices before me. I could protest to NAACP or I could march around the building or I could get a white friend to buy the building for me. And this is what I did. I did not have a chance to see the building. And so my white friend said to the owner that he had an engineer which really meant a janitor who would like to see the building. And so I dressed in janitors clothes and this is the way I first saw the building which I later purchased at 1820 South Michigan Avenue.
Because this was in 1949 and I remained there until I came here in December of 1971. You have undoubtedly become in your own time a legend. You have created some very viable and important institutions in your magazines. How do you feel about yourself? I feel I've tried hard and I've had a few successes. My philosophy about life and about success is to set small goals for myself. For example, many young people come to see me and they say they want to start a chain of supermarkets. And I always say, well, why don't you just start one little grocery store? I started that way. We now have four magazines and I started with one. I have done one thing at a time. In each time I finished one job, I was always inspired and to go on to do another job. My background is essentially one of always being interested in publications. I finished high school in Chicago where I was headed to my school paper. I went to college at the University of Chicago where I worked on the Daily Maroon which is a college newspaper I was at that time.
I later worked for an insurance company where I headed to the House magazine. So I've had a continuing interest in journalism. Did you have much money when you started publishing? No, I had no money at all. As a matter of fact, the $500 which I started the company with was borrowed on my mother's furniture. I knew about Rita's Digest and some other Digest magazines. And I had a job at a insurance company which required that I keep the president of the company informed about what was happening in the community. And so as I read various periodicals and would ask my friends about them they'd say, how can I get this publication? So the third occurred to me why not a Negro Digest? The problem was that no one else believed in the Negro Digest except myself. I couldn't get anyone to invest any money. So I finally convinced my mother to loan me $500 on a furniture. I mean to permit me rather to borrow $500 on a furniture. So I used this money to buy direct mail literature. And so I put out a dummy issue the magazine in terms of a frontess piece.
I sent this out to a group of names I got from the insurance company. I recall sending out about $20,000 that is asking for peace people to subscribe at $2 each. About 3,000 people answered. And it was with this $6,000 that I was able to get started in the publishing business. And this was back in November 1942. You recall what your first circulation figure was? Yes, I recall it very well. It was only 5,000. I also recall that at first I couldn't sell the 5,000. I recall going to a local distributor and asking him if he would distribute the magazine, the local distributor was white. I was black and he had never distributed a black magazine before. And he thought it was not something he wanted to do. So I asked him if he knew there was a demand for such a magazine, would he distribute it? He said, well of course I would. So I got a group of my friends to visit many new stands in black neighborhoods and to ask the new stand dealers for the new magazine Negro Digests.
So quite a few of them asked, quite a few of the dealers call a local distributor. And he then called me. And I gave him limited number magazines, which he distributed. And then I asked these same friends since I was flushed with $6,000 to go back and ask all these same people or rather go back and buy all these magazines from the same news dealers who'd offered them for sale. So as a result of this sale, the distributor felt that he had a real success on his hands. And so he gave me the distribution then that he should have given me all the time. And the magazine was very successful after that. Do you have a guiding philosophy now as your philosophy of the magazine changed as times have changed? Well not really. We set out to meet the needs of the people and to respond to the subscribers. And over the years I think we've changed with the changing times. For example, Ebony used to be a moderate magazine and black people were moderate. I think it's quite a militant magazine now that black people are militant.
I think we've tried to mirror the activities of black people and we've tried to change with them. I think as black people have gotten more pride, we've gotten more pride. In many instances however, I think we have been ahead as we should be. Do you feel that if you were not here, your company was not here, these same blacks would have had a training ground? I think it might have taken longer. Obviously I think it would be saying too much for ourselves to say that it would not have happened. I think it would have taken longer to happen. I think by our being here we were able to speed up the time in which it happened. I think we were the first ones to really put great emphasis on the fact that black is beautiful in the form of the Ebony Fashion Show. I recall that when we first came out with Ebony Fashion Show, there were people who said that black women couldn't wear yellow and they couldn't wear red. And we were able to prove in the Ebony Fashion Show that black women can be beautiful in any color that they want to wear. The Ebony models for example, I recall that black women could only appear in Ebony.
And we were able to develop and train models who would now, as you know, appearing on television, magazines, newspapers and everywhere. So I think we've been the forerunner in a great many areas of activity. It was a time for celebration and a time to pay tribute. Political leaders from across the United States and celebrities from the theatre, films, television and the magazine world joined the Johnson Publications family and friends to help make the opening a memorable occasion. I'm so happy to have you here.
I'm so happy to have you here. The combined monthly circulation of Ebony jet, black world and black stars is over two million. For each person who buys a Johnson magazine, the company claims that it is passed along to an additional four persons so that nearly nine million people or roughly one out of every four people of the national black community reads the Johnson magazines each month. Black world, the oldest of the publications is described as the world's leading magazine of contemporary black thought. It has a circulation of 100,000 and carries no ads because Mr. Johnson prefers to keep the magazine as a platform for black writers.
Ebony is read in 11 countries and has a guaranteed circulation of 1,250,000. Its advertising revenue amounts to $10 million annually. Black stars is oriented toward the careers of black entertainers. It has a circulation of 200,000. Jet's weekly circulation is 500,000 and increasing. A new addition to the Johnson publishing family is Ebony Jr., a children's magazine. Other Johnson ventures include the recent purchase of WGRT of black oriented radio station in Chicago and the annual Ebony Fashion Fair, a phenomenon which has helped to open up the field of modeling for blacks. The organization is aware of its role in black journalism. I consider myself really as a journalist, but in a kind of different sense from the American sense, Americans have a very weird idea of journalism. They think that a journalist is a person who simply reports crime news, who follows fire trucks, but in some European countries and I think in the ancient traditions of Africa,
a person who reported to news was considered a person who had latitude to investigate all facets of that society. Ebony magazine is unique in a way. It's a general interest magazine aimed at a special market, and the special market is the black population, particularly of the United States. Even though there is some overflow into the West Indies, and we do have circulation of broad London, mostly in English-speaking Africa, and you can find copies almost all over the world. But our main market is the black population of the United States, and we're a general interest magazine in that we try to hit all facets. Usually, we are touted as being the magazine for the black middle class America, but actually with a readership of 5 million, we must reach more than the middle class because there are not that many middle class blacks in the country.
We operate a black role under the assumption that a people without a knowledge of itself, its history, and its culture is the people who will always remain at the whome of some other people. We are interested in making it possible for the black people in the United States, for the black people who live in a racist society to focus on their own identity and to grow out organically from that identity. I personally, as editor of Black World, happen to think that traditionally in this society, we've moved in cycles in terms of our growth or development.
We go through a cycle of hope and despair, and I think that the primary reason why we do that is that we're persuaded at good times that what we really are, white people, will black faces. And because we want to make the identification with Anglo-Saxon peoples of Western European peoples, we put ourselves at their mercy. And what we try to do at Black World Magazine is to redirect black people to themselves, to their history, to their culture, so that they can find strength and sustenance there, and so that they can grow and develop in an organic way toward freedom. Well, basically, Jet is a news magazine, so we are pretty much limited in terms of our editorial content, in terms of trying to provide news which basically informs or educates or entertain its black readers. Jet pretty much mirrors what's going on in the black community.
So some weeks things may look good, some weeks things may look bad, some weeks may look extremely bad. Whatever is happening, Jet's got to be there and got to tell it. We simply try to background and give it some interpretation and some analysis. And frequently, we come up with points of views and provide the kind of useful information that you just won't get from any other source. Well, first of all, as you know, black stars is more or less edited by the young readers who are interested in Hollywood and their personalities. Editorial, we try to devote our coverage to taking areas of interest to the film-going people. And each month, we try to spotlight articles on the movie stars, including their personalities. We have found that the readers are really interested in what the stars are actually doing.
So this is what we try to do with black stars. All four of these magazines are edited for black audiences. If they're whites who read them, that's fine. But when we are deciding what we're going to put in, what we're going to say and whatnot, we are thinking only in terms of the black man. We have Ebony magazine pioneered in doing stories on black history. Lyrone Bennett's, before the Mayflower, which is almost a standard text book in almost any of the black studies courses, appeared first in serial form in Ebony magazine. As a matter of fact, Mr. Nipson, I think as a result of that series, I was an effort made to get that published in terms of book form. And at that time, there was no interest on the part of the major white publishers in terms of publishing black history. That was like a no-no.
And when the proposition was put to our publisher, Johnny's Johnson, about this, I think our publisher said in effect, and what you really said to me, right, folks, is that all to start a book publishing company in my own. And the first book, the Lyrone Bennett's, before the Mayflower, is like the flagship of the Johnson publishing company book. In before the Mayflower, I believe you pointed out that systematically white Americans had been taught to be oppressors. Is that a fair analysis? I think it's a fair analysis. I think the educational system of this country, I think media in this country, I think the whole network of meaning and symbols, I think all these things have been organized around the premise that white is good and black is bad. I think white Americans have been taught this systematically. I think black people have been taught this systematically. This, of course, is a great importance of communications in this society and in the eye in any society.
We must begin to reverse that process, certainly in the black community. So that black people will understand that they are beautiful. They will understand that they have a right to possess the land on which they live. But what role do you see Johnson publishing company having in that goal you just described? I think Johnson publishing company has responsibility to inform black people about the central meanings of their time, to interpret the events, to project alternative paths, and to defend the interests of black people. One of the major problems confronting blacks and communications today is being able to accurately perceive and report the constantly changing attitudes of the black community. Since the inception of Johnson Publications in 1942, blacks have moved from indifference to militants, from civil rights to African nationalism,
and even from the terms colored to negro to black. All too often those blacks in the media have had the thankless task of separating the rhetoric from the reality. Much to the criticism of the community's many factions. John H. Johnson, although powerful and rich, has not escaped this criticism. Mr. Johnson, being successful as a forerunner, training black people in the field of advertising, journalism, modeling, and the other important management positions that you've trained blacks in, makes you successful. Being successful now in America, some black suspect blacks who are successful. How do you answer this when you're on speaking tours in here? Well, I understand what you mean. I spoke at the University of Arkansas about a year ago, and the black kids gave me a bad time. They said that any black man who's successful must have sold out to the establishment. Now, this just is not true. We did not sell out to the establishment.
I cannot recall, except once in the whole history of Ebony, where an advertiser tried to influence our editorial decisions. And of course, we refused to be to influence, and he no longer advertised with us. So that I don't think we've sold out. I think if they look at the record, they were shown that we've been extremely militant, that we have not compromised important issues, that we have been willing to stand up and be counted. And so, I think it's just not true. I think, in my opinion, it is a part of an image problem that young people have, and not believing that a black man can succeed without compromising and selling out. I think they're underestimating the ability and the capacity of black people. In terms of yourself as a black spokesman, a major black leader, how do you see, if you had a crystal ball, how would you see the future? What do you think black people should be doing to gain their liberation?
Well, first of all, I think we have to come together. I think we have to buy from each other. We have to put money in black banks. We should buy our insurance from insurance companies. I think we ought to vote for each other. I think we ought to use whatever strength we have in a way that will help each other. Now, I think once we do that, then we reach out and cooperate with other groups. But I think we've got a co-operator on an integrated basis from a position of strength. And I think we have strength and unity and strength and togetherness. So I favor a coming together until such time as we can reach out from a position of strength. In terms of strength and unity, we have to put money in black banks.
In terms of strength and unity, we have to put money in black banks.
Black Journal
Episode Number
No. 324
The Johnson Empire
Producing Organization
WNET (Television station : New York, N.Y.)
Contributing Organization
Library of Congress (Washington, District of Columbia)
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Episode Description
This episode discusses the successes of the Johnson Publishing Company and its founder, John H. Johnson.
Series Description
Black Journal began as a monthly series produced for, about, and – to a large extent – by black Americans, which used the magazine format to report on relevant issues to black Americans. Starting with the October 5, 1971 broadcast, the show switched to a half-hour weekly format that focused on one issue per week, with a brief segment on black news called “Grapevine.” Beginning in 1973, the series changed back into a hour long show and experimented with various formats, including a call-in portion. From its initial broadcast on June 12, 1968 through November 7, 1972, Black Journal was produced under the National Educational Television name. Starting on November 14, 1972, the series was produced solely by WNET/13. Only the episodes produced under the NET name are included in the NET Collection. For the first part of Black Journal, episodes are numbered sequential spanning broadcast seasons. After the 1971-72 season, which ended with episode #68, the series started using season specific episode numbers, beginning with #301. The 1972-73 season spans #301 - 332, and then the 1973-74 season starts with #401. This new numbering pattern continues through the end of the series.
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Race and Ethnicity
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Host: Brown, Tony
Interviewee: Johnson, John H.
Interviewee: Bennett, Lerone Jr.
Interviewee: Johnson, Robert E.
Interviewee: Nipson, Herbert
Interviewee: Strong, Ariel
Interviewee: Fuller, Hoyt W.
Producing Organization: WNET (Television station : New York, N.Y.)
AAPB Contributor Holdings
Library of Congress
Identifier: cpb-aacip-a4c61412da3 (Filename)
Format: 2 inch videotape
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
Chicago: “Black Journal; No. 324; The Johnson Empire,” 1973-03-20, Library of Congress, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed April 21, 2024,
MLA: “Black Journal; No. 324; The Johnson Empire.” 1973-03-20. Library of Congress, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. April 21, 2024. <>.
APA: Black Journal; No. 324; The Johnson Empire. Boston, MA: Library of Congress, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from