Guest Editorial: Johnson Publishing Company: The End of an Era by Sr. Journalist Charles Robinson

(BALTIMORE – April 11, 2019) – There are few names in Black media that conjure up images of who we were and could be: Johnson Publishing Company. You know it as the company that put out Ebony and Jet magazines (full disclosure, they sold those publications to a pair of investors out of Texas). Linda Rice Johnson, the last heir to the John Johnson empire, gave up the last two pieces of what was left, Fashion Fair Cosmetics and the vast Ebony pictorial archives to a federal bankruptcy court in Illinois, filing for Chapter 7, liquidation.

It’s been difficult to watch this iconic Black-owned company fall from grace. In Chicago, it was a required stop for those traveling through the “Windy City”. Before selfies, having a picture taken at the JPC Building was letting family know “you made it.” Fast forward, it was one of first assets to be sold by the parent company. We were told it wasn’t worth holding on to.

Across Black communities we learned “Black is Beautiful” on the pages of its iconic publications in homes, barbershops, and beauty salons. But it was through Johnson’s wife, Eunice, who traveled to Paris on shopping trips that we learned that all cosmetics didn’t favor the hues of Black women, so she created Fashion Fair. (So when I had to anchor the evening news in Cincinnati, I went straight to the Fashion Fair Cosmetics counter to find my right shade.). The Fashion Fair Fashion Shows brought London, Paris, Milan, Nice, New York, Togo, and Nairobi to Black communities big and small. It was a place where Black and White designers could put their clothes on Black models like Beverly Johnson. Now all that is gone.

Company officials issued a statement saying they were “caught in a tidal wave of marketplace changes and business issues which, despite exhaustive efforts, could not be overcome.”

“This decision was not easy, nor should it have been,” the company’s press release said. “Johnson Publishing Company is an iconic part of American and African-American history since our founding in 1942, and the company’s impact on society cannot be overstated.”

If you lived in Baltimore, we understood the impact of a Black-owned business like Park Sausage run by Henry Parks. I beamed with pride telling my friends from across the country of our home-grown company atop the Black Enterprise Top 100. Johnson Publishing was once in this same group boasting over $400 million in annual sales at it’s height.

Rice Johnson had been looking for a buyer for the last two assets but none availed themselves to the company. What’s clear to me the thing that what sustained us through the darkest times in history will be no more than a Wikipedia page where anyone can make up what they want about Johnson Publishing.

*Charles Robinson is Senior Journalist who works in various mediums and wrote about the Freddie Gray Trial for Ebony and Jet.