John H. Johnson was a man who beat the odds.
He turned a $500 loan on his mother’s living room furniture into a multi-million dollar publishing empire that birth Ebony and Jet Magazines. He outfoxed Chicago’s strict code of segregation when he became the first black person to own a skyscraper on Michigan Avenue.
For a black man to own property on Michigan Avenue let alone a building with a driveway was a rare feat. And to honor a man for whom failure was not an option, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative Forever Stamp honoring Johnson in celebration of Black History month.
USPS officials, Johnson’s daughter, Linda Johnson-Rice, and several dignitaries, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former Mayor Richard M. Daley, unveiled the stamp Tuesday at Ebony/Jet Magazine headquarters, 820 S. Michigan Ave. Other dignitaries included U.S. Representatives Danny K. Davis (7th) and Jesse Jackson Jr. (1st).
Johnson, the founder of Johnson Publishing Co., is the 35th honoree in the postal service’s Black Heritage stamp series. The series recognizes the achievements of black Americans. The postal service issued its first Black Heritage stamp in 1978 and includes Thurgood Marshall, Madam C.J. Walker, Paul Robeson and Jackie Robinson.
Johnson-Rice called the stamp a great honor for her father and a perfect way to kick-off Black History Month. She said her father would be thrilled to have his image emblazoned on a stamp.
“He was a man who was larger than life so now when you put that stamp on a letter, he will be all over the world,” Johnson-Rice said to applause from a standing-room-only crowd that packed the company’s lobby.
Mayor Emanuel said Johnson’s stamp was a “bigger honor for the City of Chicago.” He said Johnson was a pioneer in publishing giving voice to black America and for reporting the atrocities of America’s racist past. In 1955, Johnson published photos of Emmett Till’s mangled body. Till was killed in Mississippi for whistling at a White woman.
He praised Johnson’s courage to publish those pictures “at considerable risk to his publishing company.” He said Chicago was a crucible for civil rights and “Johnson carried us through that crucible so that we as a city, and we as a country, could be what we are today.”
Mayor Daley was more reflective in his remarks. He said Johnson was sought out for advise by presidents both Democrat and Republican on black issues. He even offered a young Daley advice during his rise in politics – something Daley didn’t quite like. But he admitted he was stumped by one issue.
“I asked him how did you get this driveway,” Daley said to laughs. He noted the elder Richard J. Daley prohibited driveways from Oak Street to Roosevelt Road on Michigan Avenue. “When he (Johnson) built this building, there was a driveway,” Daley said, noting that defiance shows Johnson’s tenacity to overcome barriers.
The postal service honored Johnson for his accomplishments as a ground breaking entrepreneur. Johnson grew up in poverty-stricken rural Arkansas but then went on to start a business empire that included magazines, radio, television news talk shows and cosmetics.
In 1982, he became the first black listed in Forbes magazine’s 400 wealthiest Americans. In 1996, former President Bill Clinton presented Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award.
The postal service took a little credit in Johnson’s success. In 1942 when he started the “Negro Digest” he used postmen to expand the magazine’s circulation. The Digest later became Ebony magazine.
“By using us, he was able to expand to different neighborhoods, and he went from 25,000 which was the initial publication of Negro Digest to over a million a month,” said USPS’s Chicago Senior Plant Manager Anthony Vaughan, who grew up reading Ebony.
Many speakers noted that Johnson’s greatest success came from breaking negative stereotype of black Americans. Through the pages of Ebony and Jet, readers saw positive images of themselves. Congressman Bobby Rush, (second) agreed. Not only did Johnson give voice to black America, he also gave voice to Africans, he said.
Rush became familiar with names like deposed Congolese President Patrice Lumumba, Kenya’s first President and Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana after the end of British colonial rule, thanks to Johnson.
“Through Ebony and Jet, Mr. Johnson introduced African-American success to Africans, and he also introduced African success to us,” Rush said.
Johnson Publishing employee Joriane Seay said it was of no surprise that Johnson received this honor. She said she is glad to be part of his legacy.
“I think that his legacy remains alive just through the work that we do in the company,” said Seay, an editorial assistant and writer. “His original vision for the African American community will continue to live on because of the foundation that he laid for us.”
However, the stamp’s unveiling at the building her father had constructed four decades ago was bittersweet for Johnson-Rice. Financial woes for the publishing company forced the sale of the building, which was designed by black architect John W. Moutoussamy.
Columbia College bought the building, which will house the school’s library, for a reported $8 million. Johnson Publishing will move into the Borg-Warner Building, 200 S. Michigan.
“I will be sad to leave the building that I’ve grown up in and the building that John H. Johnson built, but you have to understand, my father’s legacy is bigger than a building,” Johnson-Rice told reporters after the event.
She said the move will provide an opportunity to “grow the company.”