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Johnson Publishing Co., which started Ebony and Jet magazines and was once one of the nation's largest and most successful black-owned businesses, has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

Its magazines were defined by its photography and articles about black people, from doctors to lawyers to celebrities. And they gave visibility to a community and a culture that had generally been overlooked by national magazines and other mainstream media.

"This decision was not easy, nor should it have been," the company said in a statement. "Johnson Publishing Company is an iconic part of American and African American history since our founding in 1942, and the company's impact on society cannot be overstated."

The brand pointed to a number of "factors outside of the company's control" that led to Tuesday's filing. The issues included the bankruptcy of a major retailer that carried its Fashion Fair Cosmetics line, a "costly recall" of products and increasing competition from digital rivals, the company said. Also, the 2016 buyer of the company's media division hadn't made its required payments.

"In short, Johnson Publishing Company was caught in a tidal wave of marketplace changes and business issues which, despite exhaustive efforts, could not be overcome," the company said.

Ebony and Jet were sold in 2016 to the Texas equity firm Clear View Group and won't be affected by the filing. Since the sale, Johnson Publishing has focused on its cosmetics division, Fashion Fair Cosmetics, and its archives.

John H. Johnson, the grandson of slaves, founded the company in 1942 when he started Negro Digest with a $500 loan from his mother. The magazine summarized newspaper articles about black life.

But key to the company's growth was Ebony magazine, founded in 1945 and patterned after Life magazine, one of the nation's leading magazines at the time. The average monthly circulation of Ebony was around 2 million for a time in the 1990s, making it the largest magazine catering to the black population.

Advertisers were initially reluctant to display their products in black-oriented publications because of concerns on how they would be perceived by other customers if they were seen as catering to blacks. The company overcame those fears by building on personal relationships and hosting prospective advertisers at the company's offices, Johnson officials said.

His daughter told National Public Radio that for her father to buy one of his company's offices, he had a white man pose as "the face of the purchase."

"My father proceeded to act like he was just a janitor so he could just walk through the building and take a look at it," Linda Johnson Rice said at the time.

Ebony debuted with a pledge to "mirror the happier side of Negro life -- the positive, everyday achievements from Harlem to Hollywood. But when we talk about race as the No. 1 problem of America, we'll talk turkey," the Chicago Sun Times reported. Jet came along six years later.

Jet and Ebony regularly reported on black success stories but also confronted pervasive racism in the United States head-on. The Sun Times reported that Ebony's first issue included an editorial that called for equal employment opportunities after World War II.

"The Negro soldier and sailor want to come home to an America that has wiped out the 'white supremacy' practices which meant the downfall of Hitlerism in Germany," the editorial said. "They want to come home to a United States where a job no longer has a color."

In 1955, after the death of Emmett Till -- a 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was abducted, tortured and killed for reportedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi -- his mother, Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley, called Ebony and Jet and urged them to show the world what had been done to her son. Jet published an open-coffin photograph of the teen's body.

Johnson became the first black person to make the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans, NPR reported.

Johnson, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996, died in 2005 at age 87. His obituary in the Chicago Sun-Times described him as "the man who turned Ebony into gold." President Bill Clinton was among the 2,000 mourners at his funeral.

Former President Barack Obama, then a senator from Illinois, said the pages of Ebony and Jet filled a void. They showed young black men that their fates didn't hinge on "some menial job or getting involved in crime," and that "strong, capable black men were out there."

"When I was growing up, basically the only black men on television were criminals or Flip Wilson dressed in drag as a character called Geraldine," Obama has said.

After Johnson's death, the Rev. Jesse Jackson told the Chicago Tribune that Johnson's lasting contribution was that he "put a human face on black people."

He went on: Johnson "gave us our first mirror to see ourselves as a people of dignity, a people with intelligence and beauty."

Information for this article was contributed by Rachel Siegel of The Washington Post and by Herbert G. McCann of The Associated Press.

Business on 04/11/2019

Print Headline: Black-founded publisher of Ebony files bankruptcy


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