Born on January 19, 1918, in Arkansas City, Arkansas, John H. Johnson overcame poverty and ethnic prejudice to become one of the wealthiest publishers in America. From a meager $500 loan (for which his mother's furniture was the security), he created a business empire centered on black-focused magazines, radio, cosmetics, and fashion. The founder of EBONY and JET magazines, launched in 1945 and 1951, respectively, Johnson celebrated the beauty of African-American culture at a time when black Americans were being openly persecuted, casting an honest light in an era when such positive representation was dangerously rare.
As the civil rights movement gathered steam, Johnson's magazines profiled its leaders, covered major Chicago events, and delivered strong opinions in its articles and editorials. By 1951, EBONY was a household name. As Johnson found success as both a visionary and entrepreneur, he moved his business to Michigan Avenue, where it remains to this day.
In time, his humanism spread across oceans, leading him on goodwill tours to several African countries, and resulting in his appointment as a special United States ambassador for both President Kennedy and President Johnson. In 1966, John H. Johnson was awarded the prestigious Springarn Medal from the NAACP, and 30 years later, he was issued the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.
Despite coming from poor circumstances, John H. Johnson maintained, throughout his life, a spirit of faith and determination, that of a true American folk hero. “Survival is in my blood,” he wrote in his autobiography, Succeeding Against the Odds. “For I am a descendent of people who were so tough that nothing—neither slavery, nor segregation, nor the River—could destroy them.”
A scholar, fashionista, and cultural sophisticate, Eunice Walker Johnson was born in Selma, Alabama, April 4, 1916, to Nathaniel and Ethel McAlpine Walker. From a young age, she was taught the value of education and a strong mind: her father a physician, her mother a high school principal, and her grandfather a close friend of Booker T. Washington. She graduated with a degree in sociology from Talladega College in 1938, and earned her master’s degree in social work from Loyola University in Chicago in 1941. In 1940, she met John H. Johnson at a Chicago dance, and they married shortly after she graduated. A few years later, she christened the magazine that would bring fame to the entrepreneurial couple, naming it EBONY after the sturdy, fine-grained African wood—a symbol of strength and endurance.
More than just an eager student, Eunice W. Johnson was a progressive thinker and a lifelong activist. She founded Fashion Fair Cosmetics in 1973 for women of color, transforming a simple mail-order makeup line into the largest black-owned cosmetics company in the world. The company got its name from EBONY Fashion Fair, a fashion show that she established as a charity benefit for a New Orleans hospital in 1958. Today, EBONY Fashion Fair has had more than 4,000 performances worldwide, and raised more than $55 million for civil rights groups, hospitals, community centers, and scholarships.
A lifelong supporter of art and education, Eunice W. Johnson was instrumental in selecting all of the Black American, Caribbean, and African art featured throughout the Johnson Publishing Building—a gallery that once composed the largest corporate collection in the world. She also served as a diplomat on several presidential missions overseas to Russia, Poland, and Liberia, and until her death in 2010, she oversaw every single production of EBONY Fashion Fair, ensuring that each performance measured up to the company’s historic legacy.