LEFT to RIGHT: Linda Johnson Rice, Theaster Gates and Bethany Collins talk at the Stony Island Arts Bank, 6760 S. Stony Island Avenue in Chicago, on Thursday, June 28, 2018, during the unveiling of “A Johnson Publishing Story,” a comprehensive look at Johnson Publishing, the Chicago business behind Ebony and Jet magazines that were essential interpreters of the 20th century African American experience. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Photo: Terrence Antonio James
Photo: Terrence Antonio James

Johnson, former Ebony and Jet publisher, files for bankruptcy

The Johnson Publishing Company, once one of the most venerable black businesses in the country as it chronicled the uplift, achievements and tragedies of African-American life, has filed for bankruptcy.

While the Tuesday filing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Chicago calls for a court-supervised sale of assets, it does not have a direct impact on Ebony and Jet magazines, which were sold by the company in 2016. But, industry observers say, it does speak loudly to how far the company has fallen since the 2005 death of its founder and patriarch John H. Johnson.

Jet and Ebony magazines founder John H. Johnson, the founder of the Johnson Publishing Co., sits in his Chicago in 2001. Johnson started the publishing empire in 1942 with $500. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Company officials issued a statement saying they were “caught in a tidal wave of marketplace changes and business issues which, despite exhaustive efforts, could not be overcome.”

“This decision was not easy, nor should it have been,” the company’s press release said. “Johnson Publishing Company is an iconic part of American and African-American history since our founding in 1942, and the company’s impact on society cannot be overstated.”

Alexis Scott, the former publisher of the Atlanta Daily World, called the filing a “significant, tough loss,” of “an important part of American life over the last half of the 20th Century.”

She speaks from experience on just how difficult it is to make the decision to call it quits.

Scott’s family founded the Atlanta Daily World in 1928, one of the few black publishing companies that pre-dates Johnson’s enterprise. It served as a farm system for Johnson: Legendary Ebony editor Lerone Bennett and Jet editor Robert Johnson were both Morehouse College graduates whose first jobs were at the Daily World.

Alexis Scott stands outside the old abandoned Atlanta Daily World building on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta in March 2014. The newspaaer was sold in 2012  to out-of-town interests by the founding Scott family. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

In 1999, Scott launched the paper’s first website, but her family eventually didn’t have the resources to sustain the company. Scott sold the business in 2012 to Real Time Media.

“With the changes in the media landscape, we just couldn’t do it anymore,” Scott said. “We filed a bankruptcy too, but we were able to settle it with the sale. I feel the pain.”

Johnson, the grandson of slaves, built his publishing company after borrowing $500 against his mother’s furniture.

It became a multimillion-dollar publishing and cosmetics empire that made him one of the wealthiest and most influential black men in the United States. Johnson won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996 and was inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame in 2004. The journalism program at Howard University is named after him.

In 2003, two years before his death, Johnson Publishing pulled in $488.5 million in sales.

Founded in 1945 as part of Johnson Publishing, Ebony Magazine has told the story of black America.
Photo: Ebony magazine

After selling Ebony and Jet, Johnson Publishing focused on its cosmetics division, Fashion Fair, and the company’s massive photo archives, which it had unsuccessfully tried to sell in 2015 for $40 million. Both will be among the assets to be sold through the bankruptcy process.

“For 70 years, Johnson Publishing provided black families with a piece of history to call their own,” said National Association of Black Journalists president Sarah Glover. “Ebony and then Jet were coffee-table mainstays sharing stories from black communities often under-served by their local mainstream media organizations.”

Black families have long hoarded old editions of the magazines as a reminder of what was and is.

Johnson’s first magazine, founded in 1942, was Negro Digest, a journal that condensed articles of interest to black people and published the poems and short stories of black writers. Its final issue was published in 1976.

Vintage issues of Jet and Ebony magazines featuring Clarence Williams III and Usher, as one issue that asks the question: “Why musicians choose white wives.”
Photo: Atlanta Journal-Constitution archives

Ebony magazine arrived in 1945, followed in 1951 by Jet magazine. From the start, Johnson made it clear that his magazines would portray black people in a more positive light and offer a truer depiction, to counter the stereotypes that often filled white-owned newspapers and magazines.

The oversized monthly Ebony featured cover stories on black heroes and stars, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Henry Aaron and the Jackson 5.

The Jet Beauty of the Week was often the first thing many readers turned to in the pocket-sized Jet, which also featured everyday people’s weddings and anniversaries. Even the advertising in the magazines highlighted black people.

Coca Cola ad in Ebony magazine featuring model Mary Alexander; the first black woman to appear in the company’s ads. Credit/The Coca Cola Company.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

But the magazines were also hard-hitting as they closely followed the civil rights movement. In 1955, Jet was the first publication to run photos of a battered and unrecognizable Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy who murdered in Mississippi, in his casket.

“Publishing those photos really galvanized the community, and it led to the real activism of the modern civil rights movement,” said Scott, who counts as one of her prized possessions a 1959 copy of Ebony with Sidney Poitier on the cover.

Inside that issue is a story on her father, William A. Scott III, who was a chess champion.

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