African Americans in Chicago
Johnson Publishing Company
John H. Johnson started the business bearing his name in 1942 with a $500.00 loan using his mother's furniture as collateral. This link between crucial family financing and his personal sense of vision, impressive level of determination, creativity, and business savvy was added to location – Chicago being a mecca for black business and culture since the early twentieth century – heralding a critical turning point in his life as well as national black business advancement. Subsequently, Johnson developed an ever-burgeoning empire into the leading black-owned publishing corporation in America. He published Negro Digest (later Black World) as his initial entrepreneurial venture in 1942. He subsequently published Ebony in 1945 as a general interest magazine. Tan (a "true confessions"-type magazine) followed in 1951, along with Jet, Hue, and Copper. While Negro Digest's first issue sold some 3,000 copies, within a year the monthly circulation was 50,000. The initial press run of 25,000 copies of Ebony completely sold out. By 1964, Ebony grossed $5.5 million in advertising revenue. At Ebony's 20th anniversary in November 1965, the magazine was selling 900,000 copies per month. By the early 21st century the magazine achieved a circulation of some 1.7 million.
A visionary in race, Johnson was committed to changing institutions and behavior through positive imaging and investing every resource at his disposal. Johnson Publishing Company diversified into book publishing, radio broadcasting, insurance, and the manufacture of cosmetics. His black-owned cosmetics companies became a worldwide competitor in that field. In 1974 Johnson acquired a majority interest in Supreme Life Insurance Company, his first employer, and invested over 2 million dollars in its operations to sustain it. Johnson expanded his business and social contacts by sitting on the boards of numerous Fortune 500 companies. His awards were numerous ranging from the NAACP's coveted Spingarn Medal in 1966 to being named to Forbes's list of 400 Richest Americans, 1982 to being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996.
While individualistic as a daring entrepreneur and wealthy businessman, Johnson nonetheless paved the way for other black-oriented magazines as he launched and promoted the careers of many African American professionals in publishing and advertising, while convincing mainstream American businesses of opportunities awaiting them in the multibillion-dollar patronage of the black consumer market once the former expanded their advertising.
Circumstances beyond Johnson's control in 1970 necessitated his moving his company from 1820 South Michigan Avenue, a near Loop location. He skillfully and near-personally financed and built the first downtown Chicago structure to be exclusively designed and constructed by a black-owned corporation at 820 South Michigan Avenue at the end of 1971. The building was later sold to a local college in 2012.