Friday is the first observance of an Arkansas state holiday honoring publisher John H. Johnson. He created Ebony magazine in 1945 and Jet magazine in 1951. Johnson was the founder, chairman, and CEO of Johnson Publishing Company, which at one time was the largest black-owned publishing company in the world.
Earlier this year the Arkansas Legislature created John H. Johnson Day to pay tribute to his legacy and to help support a museum named in his honor in Arkansas City. The Friends of the John H. Johnson Museum suggested November 1 as the date for the holiday because that was the date the first issue of Ebony was published.
Angela Courtney, curator for John H. Johnson Day, said Johnson was willing to publish things that other publishers were not, giving black Americans a voice and dedicating stories to their experiences.
"He captured so many images that a lot of publications were not capturing, such as Martin Luther King, images of the March on Washington. He [photographically] captured Emmett Till when he was murdered as a child by white supremacists, and he showed images of his body being killed and brutalized so that America could see the shame that America had caused on a child," Courtney said.
In 2004, community leaders of Desha and Jefferson counties and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff created the John H. Johnson Museum and Educational Center in Johnson’s hometown Arkansas City. Courtney said the museum is a place where the public can learn more about Johnson’s history and contributions through publishing, media and entertainment.
John H. Johnson Day will be celebrated Friday at two locations. The first event will take place at Johnson’s childhood home, which is now the museum. His daughter Linda Johnson Rice and Dr. Margena A. Christian will speak at the event. Christian worked closely with Johnson at his publishing company based in Chicago and wrote the book Empire: The House That John H. Johnson Built. Rodney Slater, former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, will also be in attendance on behalf of former President Bill Clinton who presented Johnson with the Medal of Freedom in 1996.
The second event will take place at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock. It will include discussions with Linda Johnson Rice and Margena A. Christian. Mayor Frank Scott, Jr. is also expected to take part. Courtney said she hopes the events and Johnson’s legacy will inspire Arkansas youth.
"We hope that people will realize that an icon came from a rural community and that sets an example for so many kids who come from small, humble beginnings. We hope that people will learn to realize that it’s not where you’re from that makes a person be an achiever but the 'stick-to-it-ness' as Mr. Johnson would say. To succeed one must be creative and persistent," Courtney said.
Awards will be presented at the Mosaic Templar’s John H. Johnson Day event. The Entrepreneur Award is given to someone who embodies the spirit of entrepreneurship that Johnson possessed. It will be awarded to Eddie and Sherra Armstrong with Cannabis Capital Group. The Journalism and Media award is given to a couple that excels in journalism-related careers. It will be presented to Mr. Renarda and Mrs. Helaine Williams. Two humanitarian awards will also be granted that Courtney says were inspired by Johnson’s philanthropic spirit.
"He was also someone who gave a lot to various causes and charitable giving was one of the things that was important to him," Courtney said. "We want people to realize that someone of greatness came from a very rural and poor part of the state, symbolizing that you can be all that you think to be when you are positive and you are keeping your dreams at the forefront with integrity."
Johnson was born in Arkansas City in 1918. He died in Chicago in 2005 at the age of 87.
Both John H. Johnson Day events are free to the public. RSVP at Eventbrite.com is required for the Little Rock celebration due to seating capacity.
John H. Johnson Museum and Educational Center
604 President Street/Courthouse Square
Arkansas City, Arkansas
Mosaic Templars Cultural Center
501 West 9th Street
Little Rock, AR