A look back at the Chicago history behind Ebony and Jet magazines

Hidden History
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CHICAGO — For generations, Ebony and Jet magazines were synonymous with black culture and the black experience. The two publications were founded right in Chicago with their founder making history while amassing an enormous empire. That empire is no more.

This Black History Month, WGN dug into what happened.

Johnson Publishing Company has been around for nearly 80 years, garnering well over $400 million in sales. But the company is now working to crawl out of bankruptcy, auctioning- off most of its most precious assets. WGN talked with the company’s Chair and CEO to find out what happened, what’s left, and what’s next.

“When Chris Brown was just coming out as an artist, his first stop was his publicist had him come to visit Johnson Publishing. And everyone was so excited to see him. I remember he danced all over the carpet. He told us how much he loved Michael Jackson, so he was moon walking all over the carpet,” Dr. Margena Christian, author and former JPC Senior Editor, said.

820 S. Michigan is where the who’s who of black entertainment, politics, and culture went to be seen and heard. So many historic and memorable moments were created in the building.

“We posed for that cover story at two o’clock in the morning because that’s what Kanye wanted. And so, this unfortunately was the last Mother’s Day they had together and it was for our Mother’s Day issue,” Christian said.

Christian worked for Johnson Publishing Company for nearly 19 years, moving up to Senior Editor. She also wrote the book, “The House that John H. Johnson Built,” about the man behind the historic empire. The company was home to both Ebony and Jet magazines, publications which were centered around the black experience.

“Ebony was a lifestyle, more features. Long form stories. General interest. And Jet was everything that happened to African Americans within in a week, was in Jet. I mean you knew who got married. Who got divorced. You knew who died,” Linda Johnson Rice, Chair and CEO of Johnson Publishing Company, said. Johnson Rice is also heir to the publishing empire which now spans 78 years. It had a workforce that mostly consisted of black women.

“Ebony and Jet would find these stories that others had no interest in. We showed the humanity of African Americans and we were doing more than just trying to enlighten people, we were working to uplift and empower them,” Christian said.

John and Eunice Johnson were the entrepreneurs and brains behind the company, which launched in 1942. As a child, John came to Chicago from Arkansas with his mother, part of the great migration. He graduated from DuSable High School and went on to study at the University of Chicago. He and Eunice would later publish their first magazine, “Negro Digest.”

“What they saw was a void. Most of the things you saw about African Americans were not positive and that’s what they wanted to change,” Johnson Rice said.

By 1945, Ebony Magazine was born.

“They actually didn’t anticipate the runaway success of the first issue,”  Tim Samuelson, Chicago Cultural Historian, said.

Word spread throughout the African American community, and demand for the magazine skyrocketed. Six years later, Jet rolled out.

Johnson used his money and platform to help further the Civil Rights Movement, most notably publishing pictures of the open casket of Emmett Till, the Chicago teen who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955.

“Often times in meetings, he would talk about that decision and what made him decide to do it and the reaction of people who felt very uncomfortable but they kept buying the magazine and it sold out,” Christian said.

Johnson needed more space, so he teamed-up with black Chicago architect, John Moutoussamy and built the 110,000 square foot office space, across from Grant Park. The 11- story building cost $8 million. It became the first — and to this day — only skyscraper in downtown Chicago, to be built by a black man.

By 1971, Johnson Publishing moved in.

“They did everything with rich materials. Beautiful detailing. Playing with light, so you’re just kind of walking around and going, ‘Wow,'” Samuelson said.

Wood panels from Mozambique. Custom furniture and carpeting. And a massive collection of African art and sculptures. It was all showcased for readers, in the September 1972 issue of Ebony.

The empire continued to grow with subscriptions totaling nearly 2 million households during its peak in the ’90s.

By 2002, Linda Johnson Rice, was named chairman and CEO.

“If you know any traits of an entrepreneur, it’s their baby until they expire. John Johnson was going to run Johnson publishing company to the last breath, and he did,” Johnson Rice said.

John H. Johnson died in 2005 and employees say things changed.

“When you wipe everything out there’s like this identity crisis that I would say the magazines went through as well,” Christian said.

Then the recession hit in 2008.

“The media business became a drain. I really had to decide, is it a building or is it the business?” Johnson Rice said.

The building was sold in 2010. By 2016, Johnson Rice sold her father’s landmark magazines to a Texas based company.

In April of 2019, Johnson Publishing filed for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, with an estimated debt of over $36.5 million.

“I did try to really keep everything together. I think I was too emotionally attached to it and didn’t move as fast as I might have needed to,” Johnson Rice said.

The company’s legendary photo archives, art and clothing collections, and Fashion Fair cosmetics line all sold at auction, garnering well over $35 million.

“People are angry to see what happened to his legacy,” Christian said. “It’s a hard pill to swallow.”

Right now, neither Ebony nor Jet are in print — only online.

It’s new owners plagued by subscription issues and lawsuits from unpaid writers.

The landmark building still stands. Rosemont real estate company, 3L purchased it in 2017. It’s now home to 150 apartments, some views with of Lake Michigan and museum campus.

The building was granted landmark status, by the city right before it was purchased.

Inside, the new owners worked to preserve remnants of the building’s history, while renting to a whole new generation of students and locals.

“It was our obligation even if it wasn’t a requirement to make sure the history of this building and the story that was attached to it was here for a long time,” Joe Slezak, Founder and CEO, said.

As for the future of Johnson Publishing, Johnson Rice says the whole story has yet to written.

“We are in the final stages of clearing up the bankruptcy proceedings,” Johnson Rice said.

When asked if we’ve seen the last of Johnson Publications, she responded by saying “No, of course not. But that’s all I can tell you.”

WGN reached out to Ebony Media Operations, the Texas company that currently owns Ebony and Jet, to inquire about the future of the magazines and the company, but we have yet to get a response.

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