Johnson was born January 19, 1918 in Arkansas City, Arkansas. He moved to Chicago, Illinois with his family in 1933. After graduating from high school, Johnson took a job as an office boy at Supreme Life Insurance Company and within two years he had moved up to assistant to the president. In 1942, he used a $500 loan, secured by his mother’s furniture, to publish the first edition of Negro Digest which covered African American history, literature, arts, and cultural issues.
Within six months circulation had reached 50,000. In 1945, Johnson launched Ebony Magazine which emphasized the achievements of successful African Americans, and by 1985 it had a circulation of 2.3 million. In 1950, he launched Tan Magazine and in 1951 Jet Magazine. Beyond publishing, Johnson developed a line of cosmetics, purchased three radio stations, and started a book publishing company and television production company.
In 1982, Johnson became the first African American to appear on Forbes Magazine’s list of the 400 richest Americans. In 1966, Johnson received the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal for his contributions in the area of race relations. In 1996, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President William Clinton and in 1997 he was inducted into the Junior Achievement National Business Hall of Fame.
Johnson was awarded honorary doctorates by several universities, including Harvard University, the University of Southern California, and Wayne State University. In 2010, the Johnson College Prep Charter School was opened in Chicago. Johnson published his autobiography, “Succeeding Against the Odds: The Autobiography of a Great American Businessman,” in 1989.