1966 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Once you get into something, learn all you can about it."
John Johnson was born in 1918 in Arkansas City, Arkansas. His mother, a widow, saved for two years to finance their move to Chicago so that he could get a better high school education than what was offered in their hometown. Johnson was an honor student and served as president of his class and the student council. He was also the editor of the school newspaper and yearbook.
While attending the University of Chicago at night, Johnson spent his days as an office boy at Supreme Life Insurance Company. His job was to summarize the daily news about the black community and report it to Supreme's president. This led Johnson to the idea of creating a magazine for a black readership.
Negro Digest, first published in 1942, was financed originally with $500 that Johnson's mother, then a seamstress, raised by pawning their furniture. Johnson spent it on a mailing to 20,000 potential subscribers, 3,000 of whom sent in $2 to receive the magazine. To overcome the resistance of newsstand distributors, he got friends to ask for the magazine, whipping up demand for this new publication. In less than a year, the magazine's circulation swelled from 5,000 to 50,000.
In 1945, Johnson started his second magazine, Ebony, which focused on black successes and achievement. Other magazines to follow were Jet, a weekly news magazine, and EM: Ebony Man, a fashionable living magazine for black men. His other businesses included Fashion Fair Cosmetics, Ebone Cosmetics, Supreme Beauty products, and three radio stations. Johnson Publishing became nation's largest black-owned publishing company in the nation. Since his death in 2005, Johnson's daughter has run his publishing empire.
When offering advice to young adults, Johnson once said, "Dream small dreams. If you make them too big, you get overwhelmed and you don't do anything. If you make small goals and accomplish them, it gives you the confidence to go on to higher goals."
Johnson believed his Horatio Alger Award validated what he set out to do. "It gave me credibility," he once said. "People have great respect for the award and those who receive it. It is very important to me."* Deceased