Edward Lewis, chairman and founder at Essence Communications, called Mr. Johnson a "giant" as well as an inspiration where there had been none before. "He started Ebony in 1945 with no other magazines that he could even look to for guidance," he said. "He was just determined to bring out a magazine that was going to celebrate African-American men and women and, by God, he did."
As publisher and chairman of Johnson Publishing, Mr. Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame and the National Business Hall of Fame, and was given the 1972 Henry Johnson Fisher Award from the Magazine Publishers of America.
But the accomplishments he would achieve couldn't have been foreseen as Mr. Johnson grew up in poverty in Arkansas City, Ark., where he was born in 1918. After using his mother's furniture as collateral on a $500 loan, he began to build a publishing and cosmetics empire, Johnson Products.
A POSITIVE FORCE
He started Ebony in 1945, partly to provide a vehicle for portraits of African-Americans as people rather than stereotypes. Because no black magazines existed, his chief model was Time Inc.'s Life. Mr. Johnson struggled to convince advertisers that there was a profit opportunity in reaching African-American audiences.
Now that market is mature, if not everything it could be. The most recent issue of Jet, which Mr. Johnson founded in 1951, includes ads for mass-market brands such as State Farm, Palmolive, Tide, Crest, McDonald's, Liquid-Plumr, Wal-Mart, Toyota, and Seagram's.
Mr. Lewis, Mr. Johnson and Earl Graves, the founder and publisher of Black Enterprise, used to get together to make presentations to big advertisers.
"Even with the success of Ebony, there was still the question mark of the viability of the black media and the black market," Mr. Lewis said. (Mr. Johnson invested in Essence Communications in 1985, then sold his shares after Time Inc. bought the company this March.)
Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement last week: "For generations, his publications have been engines of social change, helping promote and record African-American culture and providing important outlets for a community that for too long was neglected by the mainstream media."