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Black Arts and Culture

Johnson Leaves Arkansas At Age 15; Builds Publishing Fame In Chicago

By Rosaland Tyler
Associate Editor
New Journal and Guide

Few scholarly journals contained the term “internalized oppression” in 1933 when 15-year-old John H. Johnson moved from Arkansas to Chicago.

As some people are born with a natural immunity to measles, chickenpox, and mumps, Johnson left the segregated South with his mother and stepfather, believing he could achieve anything. In other words, he was not susceptible to “internalized oppression,” or what experts call ethnic self-hatred, which stems from one’s response to racial and cultural oppression. If he had been receptive, he probably would not have launched Ebony magazine 12 years after he arrived in Chicago, using his mother’s furniture as collateral on a $500 loan after many bankers waved away his publishing idea and called him “boy.”

Johnson was part of the Great Migration, the 2019 theme for Black History Month. As one of the six million African Americans who left the South from 1910-1970 without a clear plan of action, Johnson could have become susceptible to excruciating self-doubt and low expectations since his mother and stepfather could not immediately land jobs in Chicago and briefly went on welfare. Soon his stepfather began working with the Works Progress Administration.

But Johnson enrolled in high school. Public high schools were not available to African Americans in Arkansas City. He graduated and found a job selling insurance. About a decade after he moved to Chicago, he launched Negro Digest in November 1942. Three years later, he launched Ebony magazine on Nov. 1, 1945. The first 25,000 copies sold out in less than a month. By the early 1980s, Johnson had an estimated net worth of $100 million that came from major holdings in book and magazine publishing, cosmetics, television and radio. In 1982, about 50 years after he migrated to Chicago with his mother and stepfather, he became the first African American to appear on the Forbes 400 list.

“When we accept or “buy-in to” the negative and inferiorizing messages that are propagated about who we are, then we have begun to internalize the oppression that we experienced,” Dr. E. J. R. David wrote in a Sept. 30, 2015 Psychology Today article titled, “Internalized Oppression: We Need to Stop Hating Ourselves.”

David is a Filipino American immigrant. He holds graduate degrees in clinical community psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and wrote the 2013 book, “Internalized Oppression: The Psychology of Marginalized Groups.”

David said oppression can come in many forms, and exist because of “our race, culture, sexual orientation, gender. . .We have come to learn that—having certain traits, being a member of a particular group, and being who we are—are not good enough or are not desirable. Sometimes, we even learn to hate our traits, our groups, ourselves.

Even further, sometimes we end up hurting ourselves, our communities, and those who we share many similarities with, the ones who likely care for us the most—our family and friends. This is why internalized oppression does not just affect a few individuals. Instead, internalized oppression can destroy families, cultures, and communities.”

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But Johnson seemed immune to “internalized oppression.” In a 1990 New York Times interview in his Michigan Avenue office with walls adorned with photographs of himself with Presidents from Kennedy to Reagan, “Johnson said, “I’ve lived through all the changes — from nigger to Negro to black to Afro-American to African-American. . .We’ve come a long way. There is still a pattern of discrimination and denial. It’s tough being black in America. I’m at the top, but not a day goes by without someone reminding me in some way that I am black.”

To understand his point, thumb through history books. About a decade before Johnson and his family left Arkansas City in 1933, a white mob burned sharecropper Henry Lowry at the stake on Jan. 26, 1921 in Nodena, Ark., which is located about 500 miles from where Johnson grew up.

From 1882-1968, 4743 lynchings occurred in the United States. Of those who were lynched, 3,446 were African Americans, according to the NAACP: History of Lynching’s. Meanwhile a 2015 report compiled by the Equal Justice Initiative documented 4075 “racial terror lynching’s” of African Americans in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia between 1877 and 1950.

The report noted, “Lynching reinforced a narrative of racial difference and a legacy of racial inequality that is readily apparent in our criminal justice system today,”

In other words, the up-in-your-face type oppression did not sicken Johnson, who is a composite sketch of the six million African Americans who left the South from 1910-1970 without a firm plan of action. The numbers suggest that many left and designed a successful plan of action as time passed. Ninety percent of all African Americans lived in the South when the Great Migration began. Forty seven percent of all African Americans lived in the North and West after it ended.

“Failure is a word that I simply don’t accept,” Johnson said in a trademark quote. “To succeed, one must be creative and persistent.”

The point is dogged persistence and endurance helped many migrants put distance between themselves and the low wages, Jim Crow laws, and the arbitrary violence they had experienced and left in the South. This means that although Johnson grew up in poverty with his mother after his father, Leroy Johnson, who died in a sawmill accident when he was a young boy; and public schools for African Americans did not exist in Arkansas City, Johnson kept trying to realize his potential. He enrolled in Wendell Phillips High School and later DuSable High School after he migrated. He became editor of the school newspaper, graduated in 1936, and began working for the Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Co.

This type of strategy made many African American migrants immune to “internalized oppression,” which exists, according to some scholars, to sustain “white privilege.”

The term “white privilege” means whites enjoy privileges that non-whites do not experience, said Peggy McIntosh, senior research associate of the Wellesley Centers for Women, and author of “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Using a metaphorical invisible and weightless knapsack to illustrate the point, McIntosh said the knapsack contains special provisions such as maps, guides, codebooks, passport, emergency gear, and blank checks.

In her widely-acclaimed, original 1988 essay, McIntosh listed 46 advantages she enjoys as a white woman, such as “I can go shopping most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.” McIntosh added, “I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race. . .If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.”

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Johnson did not migrate to Chicago with an invisible knapsack of special provisions. Instead, he improvised. For example, newsstand owners refused to carry copies of Negro Digest. To avoid the obstacle, Johnson got the magazine on newsstands by asking 20 friends to ask for it. The newsstands then called distributors and requested it. After his friends bought the magazines, Johnson resold them. The same strategy was applied in other cities, and within a year, Negro Digest had a circulation of 50,000.

To explain his own immunity to “internalized oppression,” Johnson often cited a familiar story. The story went like this. He was unable to negotiate directly with the sellers when he wanted to buy an office building at 1820 Michigan Ave. in 1949.

The owners were white and they were not selling to anyone “colored,” he said in a 1980 interview in The Washington Post. “I could have reported it to the NAACP. I could have marched around the building. I could have reported it in the magazine. But I wanted the building.”

Instead, Johnson arranged for a white friend to say he wanted to buy the building. The friend told the owners he wanted to send his maintenance man over to look at it. Johnson became the maintenance man. Dressing in old clothes, he went to the building to inspect it. He decided he wanted it, and told the white friend to buy it for him.

Johnson said, “I felt good. I knew I had bought the building. If I had to do it over again, I would. I stooped all the time to get what I wanted.”

Johnson, who died at age 87 in 2005, said he had a simple goal in mind when he launched Ebony. He aimed to “show not only the Negroes but also white people that Negroes got married, had beauty contests, gave parties, ran successful businesses, and did all the other normal things of life.”

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