Has success been hard for you to attain? If so, I’d like to tell you about John Johnson, a Black man who overcame bigotry and poverty to build a giant company.
Johnson was born in a tiny tin roof shack in Arkansas City, Ark. in 1918. His mother worked as a domestic and his father was a laborer who died in a sawmill accident when Johnson was just eight years old.
For Blacks, Arkansas City public education ended with the 8th grade. Johnson’s mother wanted him to continue his education and saved her money to relocate the family to Chicago. But when he graduated from the 8th grade, she hadn’t saved enough money. To his humiliation, she had him repeat the 8th grade rather than let him temporarily drop out of school.
When he was 15, the family moved to Chicago and struggled through the Great Depression. His mother lost her job as a domestic, his stepfather couldn’t find work and his older half-sister lost her job as well. From 1934 to 1936, like many families, they had to go on welfare and they were deeply ashamed.
Johnson however graduated in 1936 with honors from DuSable High School. He was senior class president, editor of the school newspaper and the yearbook. But he couldn’t afford college.
Then he got a break. At an Urban League luncheon for top high school students, he met Harry Pace, the President of Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company, one of the largest Black owned businesses in the U.S. Pace liked him and hired him and for the next six years, taught him “about business, life, success, and Black America.”
In 1942, Pace gave him the assignment that changed his life. White media paid little attention to positive Black news and Pace asked Johnson to prepare a summary of Black news so that as the President of a Black company, he would be well informed.
At that time, Black people weren’t allowed to attend most top schools, compete for higher paying jobs, live in “White” neighborhoods, eat in most restaurants, or in some states, even get to vote.
Johnson collected the news from sources far and wide and when he’d share it at parties; he was the center of attention as Black people hungered for Black success stories.
Their interest was so strong; Johnson decided to start Negro Digest to publish these stories. Pace agreed to let him solicit subscriptions from the firm’s 20,000 Black customers and use the firm’s stationery. But Johnson would have to pay the postage which was $500. Johnson didn’t have the $500.
So he went to a big Chicago bank to borrow the money. “Boy,” the man said, “We don’t make any loans to colored people.” Johnson ignored the insult and asked, “Who in this town will loan money to a colored person?” This man sent him to perhaps the one bank that would, but that bank would loan only if he had collateral.
He had no collateral. Fortunately, his mother did. It was her furniture and she relished it as the cornerstone of her home. Even with Johnson’s help, it had taken her a long time to pay it off and she didn’t want to risk losing it. He pleaded with her.
Her response was to pray for guidance. When after a week she still couldn’t reach a decision, Johnson joined her in prayer. For the next few days, they prayed together and they even cried together. Finally, she said, “I think the Lord wants me to do it” and Johnson got his collateral from the only source he had.
This let him pay the postage and he was thrilled. Then another problem arose. Johnson couldn’t raise the money to publish Negro Digest.
So what did he do? He cleverly sent 20,000 letters offering subscriptions for $3 but would charge just $2 if the money arrived within 30 days. Three thousand people sent in their $2, which gave him $6,000 to start the magazine.
From that modest start, a business empire was born. In 1945 he began Ebony magazine, a huge success now with a circulation of 1.6 million and in 1951 Jet magazine, another big success.
He later started and built other businesses as well and today the Johnson firms, headed by his daughter Linda Johnson Rice, employ 2,600 people and have $400 million in annual sales.
Success Tip of the Week: If you are determined to succeed, do as Johnson did, keep a positive attitude and look for opportunities. Then have the courage to act on the one that excites you, for even if you don’t initially succeed, the experience will make you wiser and better prepared for the next opportunity.
In the next KazanToday, The stunning late-in-life financial collapse of Civil War General and President Ulysses S. Grant who lost virtually everything he owned. How it happened and how he recovered offers us valuable lessons.