Succeeding against the Odds
Johnson, John H., Ebony
In 1942, in the middle of World War II, Harry Pace, president of the Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Co., gave me an assignment that changed my life. He told me that he was impressed by the way I was editing the company newspaper and that he wanted me to take on the additional task of reading magazines and newspapers and preparing a weekly digest of what was happening in the Black world.
This was heady stuff for a 24-year-old man just six years out of high school. For Supreme was the biggest Black business in the North, and Pace was one of the most influential men in Black America. The president and I met at least once a week, usually on Monday, and I gave him a briefing so he could talk intelligently about race relations to people who came to his office.
It would have been possible in contemporary America--largely because of the Civil Rights Movement and Negro Digest and JET and EBONY--for him to get some of this information in White media, but in that period there was an almost total whiteout on positive Black news in White-oriented media.
There was an unwritten rule in the South in this period that a Blacks picture could not appear in the press unless in connection with a crime. There was no consistent coverage of the human dimensions of Black Americans in Northern newspapers and magazines. Its hard to make people realize this, but Blacks didn't get married on the society pages' of major dailies until the late '60s.
The items I gathered for Pace from the Negro press and isolated reports in the White press made me one of the most knowledgeable persons in Black Chicago. I started telling my friends about the amazing things I'd read. And I was usually the center of attention at social gatherings where, like some traveling circuit rider, I gave a digest of Negro news or a Negro digest. The response was almost always the same: "Where can I find that article?" Some people said they would pay me if I would let them know where this or that article appeared.
The next step was so obvious that I'm ashamed to say that I didn't immediately recognize it. I'd been riding the social circuit for several weeks, reciting my stories of Black achievement and aspiration, before it occurred to me that I was looking at a black gold mine and that I could be successful on a limited scale with a Negro digest which would pass on to the public the material I'd been digesting for Pace.
The problem here was not my density but a general elimate of doubt surrounding Black publications. Most people had seen Readers Digest and Time, but nobody had seen a successful Black commercial magazine. And nobody was willing to risk a penny on a 24-year-old insurance worker and what people told him at cocktail parties.
That's been the story of my life. At every critical turning point in my life, people, Black and White, always told me no at first. And I almost always turned the nos into yeses.
For almost two months, week after week, I went from office to office in Black Chicago and was told no and hell no. I remember going to New York to get the blessings of Roy Wilkins, the editor of the most successful Black magazine, The Crisis, the noncommercial house organ of the NAACP.
Roy listened to my story and said, "Save your money, young man. Save your energy. Save yourself a lot of disappointment." Roy went on to become NAACP executive director, and one of the sweet moments of my life was when he called me and said, "Johnny, you know, I think I gave you some bad advice." He returned to the same theme in his autobiography, Standing Fast.
"One day in the eary forties," he wrote, "a bright and eager young man named John Johnson came to the office to talk to me about an idea he had for starting a new magazine, a pocket-sized publication that would summarize newspaper and magazine articles about Negro life. I knew the almost continuous financial difficulties The Crisis had, and I told him that in my opinion the time was not right to venture into the field. …