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Why Aren't Black Business Tycoons Celebrated During Black History Month?

It’s February and that means it’s Black History Month, a designated time to commemorate and celebrate black contributions to American society. Unfortunately, the historic achievement of African American businesspeople is too often neglected this month, and every month.

For more than two decades, a number of historians, led largely by the pathbreaking scholarship of Professor Juliet E.K. Walker of the University of Texas, have been working to expand our knowledge of the rich tradition of black entrepreneurs, managers, and corporate executives. Too few people, including U.S. historians, have taken notice.

This historical neglect might have changed after last year, which witnessed the passing of one of the greatest entrepreneurs in American history. John Harold Johnson, the grandson of slaves, rose from Depression-era Arkansas roots to reach to the pinnacle of commercial success. By 1982 he had earned a place on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans--the first African American so recognized. By the time of his death, at the age of eighty-seven, his fortune was thought to exceed half a billion dollars.

Johnson’s business career began in 1936 when he accepted a part-time position wth the black-owned Supreme Life Insurance Company of Chicago. In 1942, using his mother’s furniture as collateral for a loan and advance proceeds from charter subscribers, he began his storied entrepreneurial career by creating the monthly news magazine Negro Digest. Three years later, he launched the legendary Ebony magazine, and in 1951 he began publishing the pocket-sized newsweekly Jet. By 1955, Johnson was an established millionaire and his publishing company reported a combined circulation of 2.6 million.

Of course what makes Johnson’s success story even more remarkable is that he, like other black entrepreneurs and businesspeople, was forced to overcome severe racism. Early on, for example, when he approached First National Bank of Chicago for a business loan, he was told “Boy, we don’t make any loans to colored people.” Years later, a white property owner refused to sell his office building to Johnson because he was black. Undeterred, Johnson hired a white attorney to act surreptitiously on his behalf and he proceeded to buy the property at fair market value.

Another obstacle was convincing white advertising agencies and corporate executives to advertise in Johnson’s magazines. He found some limited success with the companies Chesterfield and Kotex, but the significant financial breakthrough came in 1947 when this consummate salesman attracted the loyalty of Eugene F. McDonald, Zenith Radio’s president, who not only bought major blocks of advertising but also encouraged other major corporations to do the same. As a result, business historian Robert Weems argues that Johnson “emerged as the major intermediary between corporate America and black consumers.” Many years later, Johnson joined Zenith’s board of directors.

Clearly Johnson was an ambitious capitalist, but he also was committed to both black economic empowerment and to enhancing the image of African Americans in the media. Over decades, Johnson employed and trained thousands of black Americans and he supported the activities of many black entrepreneurs, especially those in the advertising industry. On a broader scale, the eminent psychologist and Civil Rights leader Kenneth B. Clark concluded that “It is almost impossible to measure the morale-building value of [Ebony]. The mere fact of its existence and success has been an inspiration to the Negro masses.”

John Johnson’s business activities extended beyond magazine publishing and real estate investments. He owned multiple radio stations, sponsored several television shows, and manufactured hair care products. In 1973, he founded Fashion Fair Cosmetics, which after losing $5 million during its first five years of operation, grew to become America’s largest black-owned cosmetics company with international sales in North and Latin America, in Europe, and in Africa. Other Johnson business lines included travel services, a mail order operation, fashion shows, clothing, and book publishing.

Beyond commerce, Johnson left a legacy of philanthropy that was most often committed to education. He was especially dedicated to the United Negro College Fund, and it is estimated that his companies helped to raise more than $51 million in scholarships throughout the country. Several years before his death, he donated $4 million to Howard University’s School of Communications, which now bears his name. He also actively supported the Urban League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

Not withstanding the above, John Johnson was a controversial figure. Employees complained about his autocratic leadership style, with some even referring to Johnson Publishing as the “plantation.” In 1985, Fortune magazine labeled him as “one of the toughest bosses to work for.” Johnson’s publications were also criticized for offering too much “fluff” at the expense of critical reporting on the continuing inequities of American society. In response, Johnson often pointed to specific stories he had published related to the civil rights struggle, but he also reminded his critics that he was “a businessman, not a social worker.”

For most of his life Johnson preached that a strong work ethic and sheer perseverance could overcome racial prejudice. But the accomplished millionaire came to question this precept, writing in his autobiography, Succeeding Against the Odds: “the closer I get to the top the more I realize that I’m never going to be fully accepted on merit and money alone. And that a different generation of Blacks—and a different generation of Whites—will know the final victory.”

It is difficult to exaggerate John Johnson’s influence on American society. And while the extent of his commercial success is truly exceptional, he is but one of countless examples of the inspirational black business tradition in American history. That tradition deserves more attention not only during Black History Month and but also in the pages of our classroom history books.