Tribute to John Johnson
by Yvonne LaMar
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Monday, August 8th was a sad day for Black people all over the world. John H. Johnson, of Johnson Publications died at the age of 82. Johnson Publications publishes Ebony and Jet magazines, which have been fixtures in Black households and Black businesses for over 50 years.
Mr. Johnson started his company with one publication called the Negro Digest when he was an insurance salesman in Chicago. His friends bought every issue of the Negro Digest at newsstands all over the country. Within a few months after publishing the first issue, he had a circulation of fifty thousand. Another major breakthrough was getting his advertisers to begin portraying us as we really lived from day to day. It was a time when most of America only saw stereotypes and caricatures of how we lived. Mr. Johnson and his friends changed that.
One of Johnson Publications biggest advertisers was Mr. Johnson’s wife, Eunice. Mrs. Johnson started Fashion Fair Cosmetics and the Fashion Fair fashion shows, which are always featured in the magazine. When she started, there were no cosmetics for dark skin on the market. Now, every major cosmetics firm, from Avon to Revlon, has a line dedicated to people of color. Fashion Fair was first.
In terms of exposure Fashion Fair is the Johnson family’s most visible product. Most major department stores have a Fashion Fair counter right along with the other American and European products. Fabulous women of all hues have at least heard of Fashion Fair. The other Johnson family products might not be so familiar outside of the Black community.
No barber shop or beauty salon would be the same without Ebony and Jet. Those magazines are the source of every debate. They spared us no detail when reporting the state of affairs during the civil rights movement in America. Right now, if someone mentions a statistic or the latest scoop about something affecting us – chances are they read it in Ebony or Jet.
Some of you probably still have older relatives that call Muhammad Ali “Cassius Clay.” I remember the controversy about his conversion like it was yesterday. In my mind’s eye, the whole controversy took place in the barber shop around the corner with somebody holding up the Jet cover for everyone to see. You probably have a “Big Momma” who always has the most current issues of Ebony and Jet at her house. If you don’t get them yourself, you should. As long as you browse the latest issues you can stay in the “Black people information loop.”
Since I moved to West Texas, I have seen the magazines on the table at different salons. I haven’t been to a barber shop since I’ve been here, but I am sure that they are there. I honestly believe that those magazines are the sign of a barber shop being worthwhile. However, Fashion Fair cosmetics are nowhere to be seen. I used to stock up when I visited big cities. Thankfully, there is a store right here in Plainview that carries high quality cosmetics for women of color.
Lisa Johnson opened her cosmetics store right across from My-T Burger on Quincy Street three months ago. She handed out a thousand flyers and a thousand business cards. I would imagine her parking lot would be full of fabulous women who were relived that they didn’t have to drive to Dallas or settle for low quality. Instead, a few people visit every day.
When I heard that John Johnson passed away, I thought about what Lisa is doing. Mr. Johnson used our own language and images and focused on things that are important to us. Lisa Johnson is doing the exact same thing. She is very smart. She could have successfully campaigned to get those products in any store that is already here. Mr. Johnson could have campaigned “Life” or “Time” to have stories about Black people too! I’m glad he didn’t settle for that.
There are lots of familiar expressions about striking out and standing alone, but like most successful business people, Mr. Johnson called on his friends to buy the Negro Digest when nobody had ever heard of him. Lisa’s success depends on the same level of commitment. My commitment to being fabulous has taken me all over the world, Lisa can definitely count on me to make it across the street.
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