Ebony Magazine was founded by the late John H. Johnson in 1945. Johnson, a prominent Black entrepreneur, developed Ebony with the intent for the publication to be modeled after Life magazine, but for a Black audience. Under his company, Johnson Publishing, he envisioned a publication for the Black audience that would fill in the gap of coverage from white publications, in highlighting the achievements and positive news concerning the Black community.
“[Ebony] will try to mirror the happier side of Negro life — the positive, everyday achievements from Harlem to Hollywood,” Johnson said. “But when we talk about race as the No. 1 problem of America, we’ll talk turkey.”
Johnson wanted Ebony to speak frankly about issues of race and not pretend that it isn’t an issue and speak to an audience that was not given the acknowledgement and understanding of their issues as their white counterparts.
Ebony magazine was a welcome addition to the Black community, seeing images and ideas that resonated with many Black people gave a positive feeling of inclusion. The magazine became apart of all parts of Black life as explained from a 2019 New York Times article stating, “Starved for affirming images, African-Americans made Ebony and its sister magazine, Jet, fixtures in homes and businesses — particularly beauty parlors and barber shops, where customers typically read while waiting to be served.”
Controlling their own narratives and images was uplifting and empowering for Black people, especially during this time as the media landscape of the white press treated Black people as less than or non-existent. Their treatment of the Black community can be described as the “degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness,’” coined by The Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This is a feeling that you do not matter and are not worthy of the respect of a title of Mr./Mrs., which only solidified this feeling of despair and distrust among the Black community towards the white press.
Johnson sought to change this by being that publication for his community to trust and enjoy. The popularity of Ebony magazine went further than the familiar, positive imagery of Black people as explained by former Johnson Publishing Company Senior Editor, Dr. Margena A. Christian from a 2019 WGN 9 interview, “Ebony and Jet [were] finding stories that others had no interest in. We showed the humanity of African-Americans, and we were doing more than just trying to enlighten people, we were working to uplift and empower them.”
This sentiment is reinforced by a comment in a 2021 NPR article by Clint Wilson, a journalism professor at Howard University, “If we go back to the founding of the Black press, there was a hunger, a thirst to unify as a community.” This need for unification showcased itself in different ways as Ebony reframed the relationship between its Black readers with advertisers as well as history.
Johnson’s motive to portray Black people in a positive light began with smiling images of Black women cover models along with homes of middle and upper class Black families. This convinced advertisers that including Black people in their advertisements would benefit them, by the 1970s’ advertisements for Coca-Cola and Virginia Slims incorporated Black faces.
The inclusion of history was prominent on the magazine covers and within the publication during the 1960s’ Civil Rights Movement with the May 1965 cover featuring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hand in hand with his wife Coretta Scott King along with 50,000 others as they marched in Montgomery. Ebony continued to highlight Dr. King’s journey until his death with his final cover image being Coretta at his funeral in April 1968. Articles with then executive editor, Lerone Bennett Jr., penning a column titled, Black Power, gave an in-depth profile of Stokely Carmichael, former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
By the 1980s’ Ebony was reaching 40% of African American adults, unmatched by any other general publication. But, as time went on circulation began to dwindle going from a monthly print schedule to double issues once each month. This led into the digital age in 2016 when Johnson Publishing sold Ebony and Jet to private equity firm CVG Group.
But again, with issues of circulation coupled with complaints of unpaid wages, Ebony filed for bankruptcy in 2019. What may have seemed like a permanent ending, was rewritten into a new beginning when in December 2020, Ebony was bought for $14 million by Bridgeman Sports and Media, owned by retired Milwaukee Bucks forward Ulysses “Junior” Bridgeman.
After a relaunch on March 1, 2021, Ebony returned with a new mindset and motto, “Moving Black Forward.” While being a digital publication, they are continuing to focus on issues relevant to their audience now with the promotion of Black generational wealth. Through highlighting small Black-owned businesses in select cities of Atlanta and New York in the form of a “block party” streamed on the magazine’s Youtube channel they are continuing the inclusion and acknowledgement of the Black community in areas where they were being overlooked or forgotten.
Even now by reintroducing themselves to a new generation of readers, the Ebony legacy is still remembered and valued.
“The other magazines they’re not geared towards African Americans, just a general audience ,” UA student Auriel King said. “You probably won’t see too many [African Americans] in there. But with Ebony, that’s all that you see, which is great. So, no matter your shade or size, you’re for sure going to see someone who looks like you in that magazine because that’s who they cater to.”
King, a Senior majoring in Human Development and Family Studies, recalls seeing Ebony magazines around her home as a child and receiving issues in the mail monthly. Their eye-catching covers are what she remembers most, showcasing Black entertainers in a glamorous light and allure.
The appeal of Ebony magazine moving forward are the plans of continuing to incorporate their core audience and their needs through different mediums. These include the relaunching of Fashion Fair cosmetics and recently the special limited edition print issue that was released on February 11th which featured HBCU Stem Queens gracing the cover.
With such a storied history, Ebony magazine encompasses the cultural influences and significance of the Black community. Stepping forward into a new era as stated in a 2021 Chicago Tribune article by Ebony CEO, Michele Ghee, “Our commitment is not to any city, but to the Black community. “We know who our boss is and our boss is them, and their opportunity to have the truth. And we want to provide that.”