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Sun, 11.01.1942

Johnson Publishing Company is Formed

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*The founding of Johnson Publishing Company, Inc. (JPC) is celebrated on this date in 1942. This company was an African American print and media publishing business.

Johnson Publishing Company was founded by John Harold Johnson, who was working as an office clerk for Chicago-based Supreme Life Insurance Company of America. Using money from a $500 loan secured with his mother's furniture, Johnson mailed $2 charter subscription offers to members who had life insurance through Supreme Life. In return, he received more than 3,000 completed subscription offers, and with that money, he printed his first publication, Negro Digest, in November 1942.

By mid-1943, the monthly circulation of Negro Digest had reached 50,000 copies. Its headquarters were located at 820 S. Michigan Avenue, the iconic building constructed for the Johnson Publishing Company, publishers of Ebony and Jet magazines, was designed by John Moutoussamy. Johnson Publishing had several locations throughout its history. Their first headquarters, from 1942 until 1943, was inside the Supreme Life Building at 3501 S. Parkway Ave (later renamed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive).

As the company grew, Johnson purchased a building at 5619 S. State Street in 1943. Six years later, in 1949, it relocated to 1820 South Michigan Avenue, a former funeral home. In December 1971, the company moved to 820 S. Michigan.  JPC was privately held and run by Johnson until he died in 2005. His publications "forever changed the popular representation of African Americans." The writing portrayed African Americans as they saw themselves, and its photojournalism made history. It was the most significant African American-owned publishing firm in the United States. JPC's Jet, a weekly news magazine, became digital-only. In the 1980s, the company branched into film and television.  

The founder's daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, was the company's last chairman and chief executive officer (CEO). Johnson Publishing Company sold off assets in its final years, including its historic 820 S. Michigan Avenue headquarters in 2011 and its publications in 2016. In April 2019, JPC filed for liquidation, ending the company's 76-year run. The historic Ebony/Jet photo archives, which JPC retained after selling its Ebony and Jet magazines, were sold in July 2019 for $30 million to a group of art and educational foundations to make them available to the public. The assets and liabilities were between $10 million and $50 million. The company released a statement about the bankruptcy filing: This decision was not easy, nor should it have been. 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.              

Legacy and tributes

In 2010, Chicago Public Schools and Noble Network of Charter Schools opened Johnson College Prep, a public charter high school in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood named in honor of John H. and Eunice Johnson. The Chicago History Museum created an exhibition titled Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years Of Ebony Fashion Fair, on display from March 2013 until May 2014. The show traveled around the country, including stops at the Museum of Design Atlanta and the Milwaukee Art Museum.

The Rebuild Foundation held an exhibition for the company called A Johnson Publishing Story at The Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago, Illinois. The show featured paintings, books, sculptures, furnishings, and interior design elements from the 820 S. Michigan Avenue headquarters, from June 28, 2018, until September 30, 2018. In 2018, An exhibition called The Black Image Corporation featured photos from the company's archives. The show, held at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, lasted from 2018 until July 28, 2019.

In 2020, the educational charity consortium, which obtained the historical photo archives during the dissolution of the company, appointed an advisory committee headed by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. The committee will oversee their organization and availability to the public. 

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