Ebony magazine from 1982

FILE -- An issue of Ebony magazine from January 1982 in Baltimore, Md., March 27, 2019. (Kristian Thacker/The New York Times)

Chicago publishing legend John H. Johnson laid the foundation of an empire in 1945 by styling a new magazine called Ebony as a love letter to the Black elite. African Americans were virtually invisible in the white press at the time — unless they committed crimes — and were held in such contempt in the South that newspapers routinely denied them courtesy titles, including Mr. and Mrs., that were extended to whites. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to this as an element of the “degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’” that African Americans endured daily at the hands of white society.

Such was the status quo when Johnson announced that his new magazine would celebrate Black success and “mirror the happier side of Negro life — the positive everyday achievements from Harlem to Hollywood.” Ebony featured smiling women on its covers and included photo essays showing members of the African-American middle and upper classes who lived in tastefully decorated homes and enjoyed the same activities as white people — travel, skiing, tennis, drinking Coca-Cola. Corporate advertisers who had previously shunned Black ventures warmed to Johnson’s argument that the Black middle class would embrace brands that depicted people of color in advertisements.

Starved for affirming images, African Americans made Ebony and its sister magazine, Jet, fixtures in homes and businesses — particularly beauty parlors and barber shops, where customers typically read while waiting to be served. By the 1980s, when Johnson became the first Black person named to the Forbes 400 list of wealthy Americans, Ebony was the anchor of Johnson Publishing, a sprawling cultural conglomerate that included not just magazines but also books, cosmetics and holdings in television and radio. Marketers suggested that Ebony itself was reaching more than 40% of the nation’s Black adults — a reach that was said to be unmatched by any other general-interest magazine in the country.

Influential sociologist E. Franklin Frazier discouraged scholarly interest in Ebony during the 1950s by characterizing it as a nihilistic enterprise that encouraged African Americans to remake themselves as white. Only recently have historians like Adam Green, Brenna Wynn Greer, Jonathan Scott Holloway, Christopher Tinson and E. James West offered a more nuanced view of what Johnson was up to. The new historical studies show that Ebony, and Johnson Publishing generally, played a vital role in redefining how corporate America viewed blackness and how African Americans saw themselves in relationship to business, the arts, the civil rights movement and history itself.

Historians who are just starting to explore this legacy were understandably panicked this spring when Johnson Publishing declared bankruptcy and placed on the auction block a photo archive containing millions of images. The archive constitutes the largest visual record of African American life yet assembled. The sense of relief was palpable when a group of foundations stepped in to buy the collection, promising to make it available to scholars and the public.

Child of the Great Migration

Johnson’s romance with the postwar Black middle class grew out of his own experience with upward mobility. After his family moved from Arkansas to Chicago in 1933, he enrolled in the Bronzeville neighborhood’s Wendell Phillips High School, an incubator of excellence for a great many people who would later appear in his magazines. Among those who attended were singers Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke and Dinah Washington; Chicago real estate tycoon and civil rights activist Dempsey Travis; and hair products developer George E. Johnson Sr., whose Johnson Products would become the first black-owned company listed on the American Stock Exchange.

The future founder of Ebony deepened his taste for journalism while working at the Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Co., where he edited the company newspaper. He kept an eye out for successful white-owned magazines that could be used as models for Black-oriented publications. In 1942, he started the resoundingly successful Negro Digest — inspired by Reader’s Digest — with a loan collateralized with his mother’s furniture. Ebony, introduced three years later, was modeled on Life magazine, home to photographer luminaries like Margaret Bourke-White and Alfred Eisenstaedt.

As a close student of Life, Johnson would no doubt have seen the dehumanizing images of African Americans that appeared in the infamous 1937 issue of the magazine whose cover caption read “Watermelons to Market.” The cover photograph showed an unnamed Black man — shirtless and well muscled — sitting with his back to the camera atop a wagonload of melons. The inside photos offered what Wynn Greer describes as a hierarchy of watermelon eaters, with white bathing beauties at the top and pigs at the bottom; in between was an image of a Black woman holding a slice of melon to her face with one hand and nursing a baby with the other. The equating of blackness with sub-humanity is unmistakable in the photographs. The photo caption drives home the point:

“Nothing makes a Negro’s mouth water like a luscious, fresh-picked melon,” it reads. “Any colored ‘mammy’ can hold a huge slice in one hand while holding her offspring in the other. … What melons the Negroes do not consume will find favor with the pigs.”

The cultural critic bell hooks voiced a fundamental truth when she argued that the Black liberation movement was as much a struggle over racist images as over equal access to civic institutions. Johnson may not have expressed his mission in those exact terms, but he clearly understood that a photographic magazine spotlighting high-achieving African Americans was both a way to make money and a way to advance Black claims of equal rights.

Nevertheless, the road to a high-minded Ebony that would find a place of honor on the coffee tables of the Black elite passed through a cheesecake period during which the magazine relied on scantily clad — and typically light-skinned — young Black women to generate buzz. (“We’re not the NAACP,” Johnson said. “We’re a business.”)

Wynn Greer writes in “Represented: The Black Imagemakers Who Reimagined African-American Citizenship,” that such images “made the magazine (and the publishing company) possible,” while images of homemaker mothers “served Johnson’s corresponding project of selling the black middle class to major advertisers.”

The magazine moved on from the sexualized images when it consolidated its appeal and went upscale. Along the way, Adam Green writes in “Selling the Race,” Johnson Publishing gave the post-migration generation “race-affirming portrayals of art, accomplishment, work, leisure and community” that made possible new conceptions of collective interests and politics.

Abe Lincoln, White Supremacist

The flourishing African-American studies movement we take for granted today was yet to be born when Johnson Publishing’s fiery in-house historian, Lerone Bennett Jr., set out to make Ebony what Johnson described as “one of the most authoritative sources of black history in the world.” Bennett’s writing for the magazine fed into several of his books. “Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America, 1619-1962,” starting with the first slaving ships, was a groundbreaking work of African-American history.

Bennett attracted the wrath of the white historical establishment when he challenged the popular myth of Abraham Lincoln as the beneficent lover of Negroes who ended slavery with the stroke of a pen. He advanced that challenge first in an Ebony articled titled “Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?” and later in a full-length book, relying on the well-documented information that Lincoln opposed equality, favored colonizing Negroes outside the country and supported laws barring Negroes from the polls. As historian Nell Irvin Painter described the situation, Bennett came under attack by “rabid, narrow-minded, Lincoln mythologizers” who were eager to keep the Great Emancipator’s halo intact. Nevertheless, Bennett changed the state of play, making it impossible for those who write about Lincoln to ignore the less-than-noble aspects of his character.

As British historian E. James West shows in his forthcoming book “Ebony Magazine and Lerone Bennett Jr.,” the magazine helped to move African-American history from the margins to the very center of American life by embracing the discipline of history and highlighting historical figures who had been left out of textbooks. As corporations sought to capitalize on this boom, they embraced Black-history-themed advertising, drawing Black historians and advertising executives into the process.

Yet, even as the magazine reveled in Black subject matter, it came under attack for embracing white standards of beauty. African-American women rightly protested its fetishizing of lighter-skinned women of color in cover stories like “Are Negro Girls Getting Prettier?”

The End of an Era

Johnson Publishing was, ultimately, a victim of its own success. By acclimatizing the country to the black presence in stories and advertising, it pushed other publications to open their pages. As this transformation took hold, Ebony became one magazine among many in a landscape where depictions of blackness were no longer rare. The curtain is falling on the Johnson empire just as historians have begun to recognize the company’s enduring contribution to the national culture. — (The New York Times)

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