Ebony, first published on November 1, 1945, is a monthly magazine that chronicles the social, political, economic, and cultural activities of people of African descent in the United States and abroad. Founded by John H. Johnson, Ebony was influenced by the popular Life magazine—a mainstream publication that used a distinctly photojournalist style to capture scenes of American life and culture. Anticipating the end of World War II, Johnson suspected the climate would be “ripe for a Black picture magazine,” and that young soldiers returning from war, as well as war-weary black communities, would be looking for a more entertaining counterpart to Johnson’s newsy Negro Digest.
At its prime, Ebony’s readership increased from 125,000 an issue to more than 9 million an issue: dealing with topics related to social justice and economic empowerment, and proclaiming themselves to be the “earliest and most passionate defenders of Black beauty.” From its earliest days in publication, Ebony had a clearly defined mission to promote the fascinating “Black rainbow” of beauty and confront white America’s disregard for beauty that challenged Eurocentrism. Johnson was a strong proponent of the political maxim that black is beautiful, and understood that Ebony could play a major role in challenging historically exclusionary paradigms. Johnson believed that despite their exclusion, there were thousands of African American women who could become icons of beauty. Stressing the importance of using black models, Johnson Publications and Ebony had a major influence on the advertising industry. A savvy businessman, Johnson’s belief in the importance of the use of models with whom his readers could identify in advertisements not only proved a significant business principle, but also helped open the doors of the fashion industry for black models. Ads featuring black models, including the Johnson Company’s own line of beauty products, Fashion Fair Cosmetics, became prominent and permanent fixtures in Ebony.
Johnson Publications and Ebony were principal agitators and advocates for civil rights and black empowerment. Encouraged by the promise of a shifting racial climate in the United States, Johnson believed that Ebony would create new opportunities. As his vision evolved, Johnson developed a threefold philosophy for Ebony—it would emphasize the positive aspects of black life, highlight the achievements and make blacks proud of themselves, and create a windbreak that would allow diversion from the problems of the day. Focusing on the “total Black experience,” Ebony’s purpose was to showcase black achievement and highlight a progressive and cultured black society. Ebony has been criticized for its contributions toward developing a bourgeois aesthetic and cultivating a politic of respectability.
Though without much of the social and political cache of its zenith, Ebony maintains its threefold philosophy and continues, along with its sister publication, Jet, to be the leading African American monthly magazine. Johnson served as CEO of the Johnson Publishing Company before naming his daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, as his successor; however, until his death in 2005, Johnson remained as chairman and publisher.