From Negro Digest to Ebony, Jet and Em

Article excerpt

Starting wiht the publishing of Negor Digest in 1942, Johnson Publishing Co. produced a series of maga- zines-EBONY, Jet, Black World and EM-that not only informed, but in the process helped redefine Black Americans.

Today, it is difficult to imagine the status of Blacks prior to the advent of EBONY. Although they had just helped America win the biggest war in its history, American Blacks, as far as the White press was concerned were still the invisible men and women.

"If you had relied on the White press of that day," recalls Publisher John H. Jolmson in his autobiography, SucceedingAgainst the Odds, "you would have assumed that Blacks were not born, because the White press didn't deal with our births.

"You would have asstuned that we didn't finish school, because the White press didn't deal with our educational achievements .... "

So pervasive was the whiteout the White press had imposed on Black Americans' lives that many people, including some Blacks, seriously questioned Blacks' capability to play professional sports.

But Johnson, at the time the publisher of the successful Negro Digest, had plans that were to change all that.

He had decided to start a second magazine, a large-size publication that would mirror the positive side of Black life and Black achievements in words and dramatic photographs. The original idea for a second magazine came from two Negro Digest free-lancers, Jay Jackson and Ben Burns, who wanted to publish an entertainment-oriented magazine called Jive--a slang word that referred then to what is now called rap. Negro Digest Publisher Johnson, then only 27 years old, and the two men agreed to put up $1,000 each. But at putup time, neither Jackson nor Burns had the money, and Johnson proceeded alone, broadening the format of the magazine and changing the original concept. Burns joined the staff and served as executive editor for several years.

The new monthly magazine, which, like Negro Digest, sold for 25 cents a copy and which the young publisher's wife Eunice W. Johnson, had named EBONY, was launched on Nov. 1, 1945.

Surpassing all expectations, EBONY, "the magazine by us and for us," was an instant success. The first press run of 25,000 copies was sold out within hours and another 25,000 copies had to be printed immediately to meet public demand. It easily outdistanced its sister publication, Negro Digest, as the circulation champion among Black magazines, a position it was to hold for 47 years until this day. Among the magazines first editors were co-managing Editors Herbert Nipson and Era Bell Thompson.

With picture story after picture story, EBONY gave Black people their first intimate glimpse of Black entertainment stars and sports heroes. More importantly, it showed how Black people, in spite of the debilitating shackles of pervasive racism, were able to achieve in virtually every category of American life. Thus, EBONY not only helped redefine Black America to Black Americans, but at the same time succeeded in redefining the image of Blacks in the eyes of Whites and the rest of the world. Among the many effects of that changing image was the emergence of EBONY as a dependable vehicle for national advertising, without which the magazine could not have survived. …