Former Jet and Ebony Editor Dr. Margena Christian has penned a thorough account of the life of businessman and Chicagoan John H. Johnson, the media mogul who built Johnson Publishing Company into a multi-million dollar publishing business. She shares with the Defender insights from the book, which was released on November 6.
Chicago Defender: What made you write this book?
Margena Christian: It was conceived while I was earning a doctorate in education. My research examined John H. Johnson—Mr. Johnson as we called him—as an adult educator and how he used his magazines as textbooks for educating African Americans and people of all races about our culture. The book is an extension of my dissertation, which was completed in 2013. I spent a few more years conducting additional research and figuring out a way to merge it from something scholarly for a general audience.
CD: What message did you especially want to get across?
MC: I want to impress upon readers how Mr. Johnson changed the face of journalism by enabling African Americans to see themselves through a lens that uplifted, inspired and informed them. His magazines were history books that specialized in edutainment—education and entertainment. He controlled our narrative as a race by refusing to allow mainstream media to tell us who we are or who it thinks we should be. Our history was either overlooked or ignored while our images were distorted and misrepresented our truth. James Brown sang to black America about saying it loud, being Black and being proud, but Mr. Johnson showed us how to do this each month in EBONY and every week in JET.
CD: What is one or two particularly fond memories you have of Mr. Johnson?
MC: When I was an editor with JET, our editorial team met with him each day for meetings. While conducting business, he loved to share stories and reminisce about his journey growing up or ways he handled tough situations. He often spoke about his decision to publish the Emmett Till photo and how readers didn’t find it easy to look at the gruesome images yet they kept going to the store to purchase multiple copies. He was very hands on and active in all aspects of his company. He never took his hands off the wheel.
CD: What do you think audiences will be surprised to find out about Johnson from your account?
MC: They will be surprised to learn about his complexities and what drove the machine. Empire is a composite of the man and not the myth. Personally, I was surprised to discover that he once owned stake in Essence and also allowed subscription cards from the women’s magazine in EBONY.
CD: The Chicago Defender is mentioned in the book a few times. Tell me about that and Johnson’s connection to the Defender.
The first newspaper he read as a child growing up in segregated Arkansas City, Arkansas, was the Chicago Defender. He described reading it as giving him an “intellectual and physical thrill.” He called the newspaper “militant” and remembered Pullman Porters sneaking to read it. Mr. Johnson credited it with allowing him to see a world beyond where he resided. The Chicago Defender offered him hope because it taught him about the opportunities Blacks were having in the North. He described his connection to it as having been called and found. The other connection is that before the Emmett Till images were published in JET, they were first published in this newspaper.
CD: Chicago has long been proud of Mr. Johnson and his Empire; why do you think Chicagoans will want to read this book?
MC: People grew up having EBONY and JET magazines in their home like family members. This was a legacy publication, passed down from generation to generation. Losing much of this history with new owners and the building being sold were devastating blows. People will want to read “Empire” to hold on to this history and further learn about it. Chicagoans will want to be reminded and to know that a man named John H. Johnson walked this earth and built/owned the only African-American company on Michigan Avenue.
CD: JPC has been in the news a good bit lately; do you address any of the issues we’ve been hearing about (EBONY writers suing, company changing guard, selling of the building)? If so, how?
MC: Because the book is an extension of my research, freelance writers suing EBONY is not addressed. However, the company changing of the guard and selling the building are mentioned in the book in such a way that readers will see the seismic shifts outlined for themselves.
CD: What else would you like to share with Chicago Defender readers about “Empire: The House That John H. Johnson” built?
I want people to become informed about this giant’s life and legacy. Mr. Johnson should be a household name because of how he documented African-American history in an unprecedented way that made us see ourselves in a positive way. He didn’t let anyone or anything stop him from being a voice for his race. He is one of the greatest publishers and businessmen in not just Black history but all of history.
For more information about “Empire: The House That John H. Johnson Built (The Life & Legacy of Pioneering Publishing Magnate)”, visit margenachristian.com
The book is also available at book retailers, such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indie Bound and Books A Million. (Paperback: $29.95; Hardcover: $39.95)