Ebony magazine was more than a publication – to black America, it was a public trust.
So back in 2015, when Johnson Publishing Company announced it was spinning off its flagship magazine, Ebony, and also its news magazine sibling, Jet, people knew something was up.
Smikle founded Target Market News, a Chicago-based service that tracks black consumer power and patterns for the business market.
The company says it’s selling the remainder of its assets, a comprehensive archive of photos from some of black America’s most pivotal 20th Century moments, and a beloved cosmetics line that, toward the end, accounted for more than 40 percent of JPC’s bottom line.
How did it get to this? Ebony has been around for so many decades, it saw the terminology for its target audience change from “Colored” to “Negro” to “Black” to “African-American.” People thumbed through its glossy pages for stories of black success and achievement.
Founder John H. Johnson used to say his magazines “Gave readers the feeling that there were black people in other cities and in other countries like themselves who were doing well,” he told NPR in a 2002 interview.
“It inspired them to do better.” So there were doctors and lawyers, entertainers and sportsmen, pastors and politicians – including ones from black countries.
Ebony covered Ivorian president Félix Houphouët-Boigny’s state visit to the White House in 1962 and put his glamorous new wife on the cover next to Jacqueline Kennedy.
The civil rights movement gave way to the Black Power movement.
Subscriptions of Johnson publications started to dwindle.
John H. Johnson died in 2005, and by prearrangement, the reins passed to daughter Linda Johnson Rice.
In 2016 she sold Ebony, Ebony.com, and Jet.com to Clear View Ventures, a Texas-based, black-owned private equity firm that promised to “Position the enterprise for long-term growth. Our team” promised Clear View CEO Michael Gibson, “Has a true understanding of the Ebony brand as well as its legacy.” Clear View had a less-than-clear understanding of the need to pay its freelance writers, who, because of the staff cuts and downsizing before the magazine’s sale, had become Ebony’s lifeblood.
John Johnson’s wife, Eunice, created a traveling fashion show that drew tens of thousands of mostly black women for decades.
Ebony Fashion Fair established a theme each year and featured black models who strutted down the runways in clothes by Yves Saint Laurent, Bill Blass and up-and-coming black designers like Stephen Burroughs and Patrick Kelly.
Money from the popular show went to black nonprofit organizations.
Fashion Fair Cosmetics, the first high-end cosmetics line for women of color to be sold in department stores, was born when Eunice Johnson noticed her models mixing their own makeup shades before they walked the runway.
Fashion Fair had sold fantastically well when white cosmetics companies were only selling foundations and powder that went the gamut from pale to paler.
If the tendered offer for the company’s remaining assets is accepted, Fashion Fair and JPC’s vast photo archive will be bought.