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John Harold Johnson (January 19, 1918 – August 8, 2005) was a businessman, publisher and founder of the Johnson Publishing Company. In 1982, he became the first African American to appear on the Forbes 400.

Johnson was born in rural Arkansas City, Arkansas, the grandson of slaves. When he was eight years old, his father died in a sawmill accident and Johnson was raised by his mother and stepfather. He attended an overcrowded and segregated elementary school. Such was his love of learning, he repeated the eighth grade rather than discontinue his education, as there was no public high school for African Americans in his community. Facing poverty on every side in Arkansas during the Great Depression, the family moved to Chicago, Illinois, in 1933 to try to find work and for Johnson to continue his education. Johnson entered all-black DuSable High School while his mother and stepfather scoured the city for jobs during the day.

At DuSable High School his classmates included Nat King Cole, Redd Foxx and future entrepreneur William Abernathy. Because of his achievements in high school, Johnson was invited to speak at a dinner held by the Urban League. When Harry Pace, president of the Supreme Life Insurance Company, heard Johnson’s speech, he was so impressed with the young man that he offered Johnson a job so that he would be able to use the scholarship. Johnson began as an office boy at Supreme Life and within two years had become Pace’s assistant. Once the idea of The Negro Digest occurred to him, it began to seem like a “black gold mine”, Johnson stated in his autobiography Succeeding against the Odds. He remained enthusiastic even though he was discouraged on all sides from doing so. Only his mother, a woman with biblical faith and deep religious convictions, as well as a powerful belief in her son, supported his vision and allowed him to use her furniture as collateral for a $500 loan. He used this loan to publish the first edition of Negro Digest in 1942.

In 1951, Jet, a weekly news digest, began. Later publications included African American Stars and Ebony Jr., a children’s magazine. Although all of the magazines achieved a measure of success, none was able to compete with Ebony, which in its 40th year of publication had a circulation of 2,300,000 and was the primary reason that Johnson was considered one of the 400 richest individuals in the United States. Johnson expanded his business interests to areas other than his magazines. He became chairperson and chief executive officer of the Supreme Life Insurance Company. He developed a line of cosmetics, purchased three radio stations, started a book publishing company, and a television production company, and served on the board of directors of several major businesses, including the Greyhound Corporation.

 

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