Linda Johnson Rice is the chairman and CEO of Johnson Publishing Company, established by her parents, John H. and Eunice W. Johnson in 1942. Through its flagship magazines Ebony and Jet, the Chicago-based business was from the 1960s until the early 2000s the largest Black-owned privately held company in the US. As the media landscape has transformed, Johnson Rice has overseen major shifts in operation, transitioning the company’s magazines in the early 2000s to emphasise archival and digital output. Under Johnson Rice’s management, the company has continued not only to be a showcase of Black talent, but also a monument to collaboration and cooperation, and a vital narrative strand in the ongoing story of Black America.
Interview by Theaster GatesPortrait by Nathan Beckner
THEASTER GATES So, Linda, take me back.
LINDA JOHNSON RICE Both of my parents were part of the great migration of Blacks from cities in the South to the North. My mother came from Selma, Alabama, and my father came from Arkansas City, Arkansas. They met at a dance and my mother was there with someone else. My father said, “Eunice, can I take you home?” and my mom said, “Absolutely not.” My father, the maverick entrepreneur and born salesman thought, game on. Then they fell in love. Both of them together had a dream and discipline and drive, and that’s part of the genesis for Ebony, which my mother named. Ebony was our monthly magazine which started in 1945 and Jet was a weekly news magazine started in 1951. Subsequently, we had the media business and the beauty business, Fashion Fair Cosmetics, created in 1973 and guided by my mother. What they had together was an ability to showcase Black people with a sense of pride and purpose; they showed that Black people have values and are to be valued.
TG Growing up, would you show up in the office?
LJR Firstly, let me go back to the very, very beginning because people need to know that I was adopted. I started going to the office when I was a kid. After school, other kids went out to play and I went to Johnson Publishing Company. I grew up running in and out of the art department. When I was about ten, the Jackson Five came by...
TG Good Lord.
LJR And that’s when I thought, there might be something to this media business. Then, when I was in high school, I would go to the office after school. In the summer, I worked with my mother during the Ebony Fashion Fair. I remember in high school, we bought a local radio station in Chicago called WJPC and the other kids began to notice that my family had some visibility. They weren’t reading Ebony and Jet, but their parents were. Growing up there was so fascinating, and I met the most incredible people – not just the celebrities, but just to be in a building surrounded by people who were almost all Black. The passion that people had was so infectious and inspiring.
TG It speaks to that period when Black self-empowerment and Black determinism were at their height – us buying from each other and having businesses that were for us. While we could compare Ebony to Life magazine, and while Jet was a kind of Black version of Reader’s Digest, where else were we going to get an image of Black dignity if we didn’t put it out ourselves?
LJR Absolutely. The first magazine that came out was patterned after Reader’s Digest, and that was Negro Digest in 1942 when we weren’t even called Black or African American. You didn’t have the Voting Rights Act at that time, which came around in the mid-1960s. You had to push those doors open. You can develop a sense of the climate from the things that we chronicled during those tumultuous times but, sadly, elements of that climate remain to this day. We did an article back in the mid-2000s and it showed riots in the streets, police with water hoses and dogs. We compared those images to the pictures that we had of the pre-Civil Rights period, and they were the same images. Ebony was there.
TG The primary work you guys were doing was disseminating knowledge and increasing the dignity of the Negro, but a secondary gift of Johnson Publishing was this enormous archive, these photography, film and sound archives that are the living history of Black people in America.
LJR The photo archive started in the late 1940s and lasted through up to 2008 or 2009. It’s a chronicle of Black history and Black achievement across a huge diaspora. I don’t think there’s any archive for Black Americans that chronicled what Ebony and Jet did. When you look at the photo of Emmett Till in 1955 or the covers of Ebony and the stories on Black power, the Black middle class, the war on drugs, or the “white problem” – these are stories that were told through the pages of the magazine through the lenses of Black photographers. Where were Black photographers to go to have that kind of platform to showcase their work? That archive is one of a kind and second to none.
TG Absolutely. Your dad and mom also mined the academic community, encouraging famous writers to write for the magazine.
LJR Oh, absolutely. The list is incredible. We had a brilliant executive editor and editor-in-chief, Lerone Bennett, Jr, who was a historian himself. He wrote Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America , one of the defining books on Black history. Then you also had people like Eleanor Roosevelt, who wrote an article for Ebony entitled, “If I Were a Negro”. There are almost no words to describe the impact of that. You had James Baldwin and Gordon Parks, the list goes on and on. So that archive was acquired as we went through the company’s bankruptcy transition, and for it to be bought by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the J. Paul Getty Foundation was phenomenal. Then for the archive to be able to reside at the National Museum of African American History and the Smithsonian with Lonnie Bunch is exactly what I wanted. Going through bankruptcy is hard, and doubly hard when it’s your family business, but from that came a beacon of hope and light, as the world is able to see the the extent of the archive as it goes through the digitisation process.
TG Linda, I want to fill in some parts in the middle. We have the establishment of Black dignity with the creation of Negro Digest, and then we fast forward to bankruptcy and the purchase of the images for $30 million – a significant number, but absolutely worth it. Johnson was the most important Black company in the world in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and it was a publishing company, and John and Eunice were pioneers in identifying these entrepreneurial paths. You have this incredibly lucrative company, and then in the late 1980s, your parents are ageing, and the landscape of publishing and printing is changing.
LJR Then 2008 hit and there was a sea change. Magazines like Ebony and Jet were not part of Condé Nast or Hearst or Meredith. My father held on to his company until his last breath and prob- ably even after, but we didn’t make that shift fast enough to digital. Yet it would have been difficult no matter what.
TG It was during this period that you and I became friends.
LJR At that time, I was trying to figure out what the transition was going to look like, and you shared your vision with me for what you wanted to do on the South Side of Chicago in the Dorchester area, and with the Stony Island Arts Bank. At that time, it was broken down and dilapidated. Growing up in Chicago, as we both did, I’ve seen that building forever, dormant and a bit decayed. You said, “I want you to come to see it”, and I walked in there and I thought to myself, “Oh, my God, there are holes in the floor, there are holes in the ceiling.” But at the same time, I was thinking, “Well, you know, my father had a vision, too.” I had this huge library of books I didn’t know what to do with and immediately you said, “I need the books, the bookshelves, the whole library.” You sent in an incredible team of people who worked so meticulously and diligently to extract it. So this was another archive, not a photographic archive, but an archive of books. It showed that we as Black people have to support, love and uplift one another.
TG Yes, we do. We haven’t talked yet about Eunice and the role that she played in securing couture and bringing Black women to Europe. Can you talk about the successes but also some of the challenges your mom had?
LJR Let’s start at the beginning with the Ebony Fashion Fair, of which my mother was the producer and director. It was started in 1958 as a charitable fashion show and it ran until 2009 travelling to different cities, mostly across the United States and Canada, but we also had a show in London. Over its duration, it raised over $55 million for charities, and for every ticket that you bought for the Ebony Fashion Fair, you got a subscription to Ebony or Jet, so it was a marketing vehicle as well. My mother would go to Europe and New York twice a year to go to the fashion shows. She was sourcing haute couture – Dior, Valentino – for Black people, and the brands had to understand and accept that from the beginning. But my mother was, I like to say, a steel magnolia from Alabama. She was a rose and a fist and glove – sophisticated, elegant, well-educated, a beautiful woman with exquisite taste. Often when a model walked out on the Ebony Fashion Fair wearing Valentino, she was wearing the more theatrical garments. Haute couture is like a laboratory of ideas; it’s not what a retailer would buy. She wanted the best that they had, and she came fully equipped with a chequebook.
TG You’re in the middle of new projects related to Johnson.
LJR The company is starting small, but we’re transitioning into film and television content. I’m working on a documentary called The Empire of Ebony, about the birth of Ebony and how Johnson Publishing Company was started. The director is Lisa Cortés, who’s fantastic. I own the copyrights to all the books that we published, some 40-odd titles, and we’re mining those titles to see what could be great for a movie or a television series. I’ve also had someone approach me about investing in a Broadway show. ◉