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Johnson, John H.

John H. Johnson

John H. Johnson, born in rural Arkansas in 1918, died in 2005 in Chicago, the city where his family resettled after visiting the 1933 World’s Fair.  Johnson, among the most influential publicists of African American “firsts,” also recorded a number of his own: he was the first black American to find major mainstream success as a book and magazine publisher, and the first to appear on Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 richest Americans.  After studying at Northwestern and the University of Chicago and working at the Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company, Johnson built his fortune by founding a string of magazines aimed at a national black audience.  He began with Negro Digest and Ebony, their own FBI files also featured on this site, and followed up with Jet, American Stars, Ebony Man (EM), and Ebony Jr., aimed at children.  Even as its models Life and Look fell by the wayside, Ebony, Johnson’s biggest seller, continued to prosper, its mostly-good-news lifestyle articles and photo essays still attracting an average monthly circulation of 1.26 million copies in 2015.  Johnson’s stake in what he called “the business of inspiring people” also led him into cosmetics.  Unable to find quality makeup for Ebony’s black models, he launched Fashion Fair, one of the leading skin-care companies for women of color.  Johnson’s relatively short FBI file shows no intrusive surveillance into his dealings as a publisher.  Instead, it concentrates on the Bureau’s successful investigation of a 1955 extortion case in which he was the target of a threatening letter.  “Dear Mr. Hoover,” Johnson reached out after the case was closed, “I am writing to express my thanks for the fine cooperation and help that was given me by the Chicago office of the FBI.”  Johnson’s file is provided thanks to the original FOIA research of Reginald Smith. 

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Johnson, John H.

FBI documents studying John H. Johnson.



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