John H. Johnson was born on January 18, 1918 in Arkansas City, Arkansas. He was the grandson of slaves. After his father was killed in a sawmill accident, his mother, a washerwoman and cook, saved money to relocate the family to Chicago for better opportunities. He attended DuSable High during the day with Nat King Cole and Red Foxx during the day and read self-improvement books at night. He was the editor of the school paper and president of his class.
In 1942, when he created his first magazine, Negro Digest, black people had contributed to many aspects of American life, including the war effort, but were largely ignored by the mainstream media. Within a year, it had a circulation of 50,000.
At this point he began planning a magazine that would have large, colorful, glossy covers reminiscent of Life Magazine, to “show not only the Negroes but also white people that Negroes got married, had beauty contests, gave parties, ran successful businesses, and did all the other normal things of life.” His wife, Eunice Johnson, came up with the name, Ebony. It was the first magazine to target regular consumer advertising, as well as niche items, to African Americans.
In 1951, Johnson Publishing launched Jet. In 1973, when models touring with the Fashion Fair shows were unable to find suitable cosmetics, Johnson’s company created the Fashion Fair cosmetics line. In 1982, John H. Johnson was the first African-American on Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 wealthiest people in the nation. He died in 2005.