The creation and cultivation of Black culture is one of the most compelling stories of our beauty and resilience in the modern world. An integral piece of this story is the storyteller. Black media has evolved over years while keeping one centralized goal in mind: “For us, by us.”
Essence magazine has represented Black women and their voices for over 50 years. This award-winning magazine began as a resource for the Black community by placing fashion, lifestyle, and beauty at the forefront.
The idea was birthed in 1968, when Edward Lewis, Clarence O. Smith, Cecil Hollingsworth and Jonathan Blount founded Hollingsworth Group. This would later be named Essence Communications, Inc. Originally titled “Sapphire Magazine”, the founders aimed to have the title reflect the gem-like beauty and resilience of Black women. Luckily, they changed the title after discussions about the harmful Sapphire stereotype and readers’ likelihood to associate the magazine with the disrespectful trope.
The magazine came about during the era of “Black capitalism.” Black capitalism is a Nixon-era political movement among African-Americans. This narrative was built around the idea of generational and community wealth being developed through ownership and development of businesses. Many Black media giants were birthed or rose to new levels of prominence because of this belief such as Black Entertainment Television (BET for short).
In May of 1970, the first issue of Essence Magazine was ready to grace the shelves. According to Lewis and Smith, the lifestyle publication was supposed to be aimed at “upscale African-American women”.
For this publication to be successful it needed to be backed by staff that understood the experience of Black women. Many figures that supported the magazine’s humble beginnings had little-to-no prior experience in publishing and journalism. This includes Susan Taylor. Taylor caught wind of a budding magazine focused on the experiences of Black women and contacted then Editor-In-Chief Ed Lewis. Taylor had no editorial experience but was a licensed cosmetologist. At the age of 23, she was hired as Essence’s first ever beauty editor.
The monthly magazine saw notable success and by 1975 had amassed around $3.5 million in advertisements. Its January 1977 issue had about 550,000 issues circulated.
Power struggles between the founders and creative directors ensued in the mid 1970s. By 1977, Gordon Parks Sr., creative director for Essence, took legal action. Parks cited that he was entitled to more creative control and Ed Lewis was prohibiting other input. Cecil Hollingsworth and Jonathan Blount, who left over management disputes, backed Parks push for more executive control. Parks eventually left the publication.
By 1981, Susan Taylor had been promoted to Editor-In-Chief with Ed Lewis still presiding as CEO of Essence Communications. Essence’s popularity continued to grow, only being rivaled by other Black focused publications like Ebony and JET Magazine. Black women felt as though they could relate to the stories as well as the celebrity profiles being shared in each issue.
As the era of “Black capitalism” was seemingly coming to a close, certain heads of Black media were selling companies to white-owned companies. Berry Gordy sold Motown records in the late 80s to a holding company and Robert Johnson sold BET to Viacom in 2000. In 2005, Essence sold all of its assets to Time, Inc. making it no longer Black owned.
This sparked polarizing opinions. Some applauded Lewis for creating the amount of revenue he did, citing him as a shining example of Black capitalism’s ability to bring profit to our community. Others cited the irony of basing his success in capitalism while he profits off of the experiences of Black women, only to sell the company and ostracize Black women further.
Essence continued to produce issues and events focused on Black women. This includes the continuation of the Essence Music Festival, which started in 1995.
In 2017, Time Inc. decided to sell Essence Communications Inc. to Shea Moisture founder Richelieu Dennis. Dennis launched Essence Ventures, LLC. to handle the continuation of the magazine. Essence magazine was Black owned again and still is as of today. Chief Content Officer Derek T. Dingle labeled the transaction as “groundbreaking” and added that this is an example of how African-American entrepreneurs “can execute with vision and wherewithal to return valuable institutions to African American ownership.”
Currently, Essence still rests as a cornerstone of Black media. Erykah Murray, a recent graduate of UA, remembers having Essence delivered to her house growing up.
“It was a cool thing growing up and seeing women that look like me on the cover of magazines. Now I’m older and I’m planning to go to the Essence Festival,” said Murray. “I’ve heard about [the festival] so much, I just needed to experience it and I’m excited to see Black beauty, excellence, food, music—all of it really.”
Essence came from humble beginnings, developed a deep history, and established a strong relationship with the Black community. It serves as a long-standing reminder that Black women and their voices matter.