Location: 820 S. Michigan Avenue
Architect: John Warren Moutoussamy
John H. Johnson (1918-2005) was an American businessman and publisher born in Arkansas City, Arkansas before relocating to Chicago with his family during the Great Migration. Johnson graduated DuSable High School with honors and went on to study at the University of Chicago while working at Supreme Life Insurance Company. One of his first jobs at the company was compiling newspaper clippings for a monthly digest which sparked his interest in publishing. With a $500 loan borrowed against his mother’s furniture, Johnson launched Negro Digest, later renamed Black World.
Johnson went on to become the founder of Johnson Publishing Company in 1942, launching the magazines Ebony in 1945 and Jet in 1951. Ebony featured the achievements of Black Americans and the Black community along with photo essays of current events and reporting on civil rights legislation, the Black Power movement, freedom rides and marches. Launching on the same date 6 years later, Jet served as a smaller format quick-read publication. Both publications quickly became known for their serious reporting and attention to issues ignored by the white press. Martin Luther King Jr. personally reached out to Jet editor Bob Johnson to cover the freedom marches, while historians like Lerone Bennett Jr, were hired to document the contributions of African Americans in the country’s history that had previously been overlooked.
Johnson’s publisher’s statement from 1975 captures why publications like Ebony and Jet were necessary: “Ebony was founded to provide positive images for blacks in a world of negative images and non-images. It was founded to project all dimensions of the black personality in a world saturated with stereotypes.” Both publications provided visual commentary on Black life and reflected how Black communities saw themselves, filling a much-needed void in the American publishing sector. At its height, Ebony was reaching an estimated 40 percent of Black Americans. Johnson was also instrumental in persuading corporate America to advertise in his publications and depict people of color in those advertisements. A gifted businessman and leader, Johnson gave a voice to millions of African Americans with positive and affirming images and stories.
Johnson Publishing Company eventually found its home at 820 S. Michigan, where it stayed until 2010. The John Warren Moutoussamy-designed building became the first Black-owned building in downtown Chicago, and it remains the only Chicago high-rise designed by an African American architect. Moutoussamy studied under Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology and the building’s exterior has a striking, modern design.
The interior of the building, however, captured a microcosm of Black culture. Exuberant and bold textures, colors and geometric patterns graced each floor of the building, complemented by contemporary furnishings and sculptures. In his 2013 editorial of the space, Chicago photographer and writer Lee Bey described the offices as embodying “an Afrocentric modernism that was well-turned, avant-garde and quite hip."
The building was eventually sold in 2017 to a real estate developer and converted into rental apartments. Although the distinctive interiors were removed, the iconic Ebony Test Kitchen was saved from demolition by Landmarks Illinois and transferred to the Museum of Food and Drink in New York. Some carpets, upholstery and wallpaper from the original interiors remain in common areas but they only hint at the building’s incredible past.
The building was granted National Historic Landmark status in 2018, protecting the building’s exterior from any changes and preserving the iconic Jet and Ebony signs.
Apart from publishing, Johnson was dispatched on several international missions by President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson. He was appointed special ambassador to represent the United States at the independence ceremonies in Côte d'Ivoire in 1961 and in Kenya in 1963. Johnson received many honors and accolades throughout his life, including being the first African American to be selected as Young Man of the Year by the United States Chamber of Commerce in 1951. In 1974 he was named “The Most Outstanding Black Publisher in History” by the National Newspaper Publishers Association. He became the first Black man to appear on the Forbes 400 list in 1982 and in 1996 he was bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.
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