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Farewell and thank you to John H. Johnson

By Allissa Hosten
Special to

Posted: Aug. 19, 2005

Allissa Hosten

He had a velvety rasp in his voice, made all the more charming by a subtle Southern lilt that hinted the North hadn’t always been his home. He had a way of laughing deep in his throat, with a reserved “hem-hem-hem,” lest you catch him having too much fun and not take him seriously. After all, John H. Johnson was a man to be taken seriously.

For the past 60 years, Mr. Johnson used his voice and hard-fought-for clout to give voice to an ignored African-American community. For a brief time, I sat across the board-room table from him.

For nine months, I was an intern with Mr. Johnson, founder of Ebony and Jet magazines. I reported the news of a people who had been invisible to the mainstream media. When Mr. Johnson died Aug. 8 at the age of 87, I was torn between feeling selfishly saddened by his departure and enormously grateful for the inroads he made in American journalism.

People use the phrase “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” so much these days that it seems almost cliché. Had it not been for the Summer of 2003, I might have been loath to use the expression. But almost two years ago, Jet magazine -- for the first time in its history -- decided to host an internship. That is how I became a believer.

On the first day of the internship I was on the brink of tears. Standing in my bathroom, I had just realized that I had outgrown my trusty black suit, and there was nothing I could do about it. No amount of coaxing would force my blazer buttons to close. My professional image was at stake, and there was no way I would risk the chance of running into Mr. Johnson without the proper attire. As I wiped the tears away, I thought of less superficial things, such anticipating my first assignment.

A month earlier I never thought that I would work for a national publication -- let alone one so admired that it remained dog-eared from use on my parent’s coffee table. Imagine my surprise when the director of Human Resources arranged an interview.

At the meet-and-greet with the editors, I showed the only clips I had -- my Chips Quinn Scholar pieces written during my internship at the Observer-Dispatch in Utica, N.Y. I was hired on the spot, and editors said I would work a 9-5 workday. Being a full-time student, I could not do that. Editors then secured special permission from Mr. Johnson for a schedule structured around my classes. At the time, I wondered if I ever would meet Mr. Johnson. He seemed like the Wizard of Oz -- a man who sent down directives but was rarely seen. That impression would change.

At noon on my first day, I found out that the Jet staff met with him daily to pitch stories to fill the weekly publication. That day, we piled into the elevator and headed to the 11th floor, where we would meet in Mr. Johnson’s penthouse office in Chicago. I was all butterflies during the ride. I tried to convince myself that it was the elevator, but, in my heart, I knew I was scared.

What does one say to a man who built a multi-million-dollar publishing empire from a $500 loan using his mother’s furniture as collateral? A man who printed photos of Emmett Till in his casket -- photos that are thought to have advanced the civil rights movement? A man who single-handedly created what advertisers called the “African American market.”

For starters, I said, “Yes … sir.”

After coming out of my stupor, I realized he was talking to me. In that granddaddy-gruff voice, he said with a smile, “I see we have some new faces here!”

Allissa Hosten with John Johnson in Summer 2003.

I grinned and clasped my hands tightly underneath the table to keep them from shaking. “Tell us about yourself,” he said, his deep brown eyes dancing with delight. They were warm eyes -- eyes that had greeted Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and now, little old me -- an intern.

I told him of my studies at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He asked how many African Americans were in my class. When I told him two of almost 200, he beamed. He seemed proud that he had plucked my classmate (working at Ebony) and me for his inaugural internship program. “Well, enjoy your stay,” Mr. Johnson said, moving on to hear the news.

Enjoy it I did. Mr. Johnson believed in me. One day when discussing cover-story subjects, I suggested R&B singer Ashanti, who had an album due out that week. In pitching the idea, a tiny voice inside me wondered if I might have a shot at writing the story, too. I asked my editors, who said they would have to check with Mr. Johnson. The next day they said he had sent word: He would give me a chance.

There I sat in my cubicle with the news -- an intern preparing to write her first national cover story. If Mr. Johnson believed in me, perhaps I could try believing in myself. That story led to a cover story on Smokey Robinson, and another on the revival of “A Raisin in the Sun.”

While I was writing these stories it never ceased to amaze me how inseparable Mr. Johnson was with Black history. When I pitched the “Raisin” story, he leaned back in his chair and let out that “hem-hem-hem” chuckle.

“So they’re re-doing Lorraine’s play?” he asked. When I nodded, he told us of how Hansberry’s drama was semi-autobiographical and that he had known her father very well. I was amazed. One of my favorite authors had been on a first-name basis with Mr. Johnson! He stared out the window at the panoramic view of Lake Michigan. Tales of his friendship with Native Son’s author Richard Wright flowed out next. By then, my jaw was hitting the board-room desk.

That was just a day in the life of working with Mr. Johnson. Mention African-American icons and he would make them come alive with anecdotes of their visits to his office or his world travels. I loved it.

I also loved poring over old issues of Ebony and Jet in the office’s library and hearing again and again why the office had a cafeteria. Mr. Johnson told me that when he started Ebony in 1945, African Americans weren’t allowed to eat anywhere else. I almost cried. It reminded me how far we had come. Suddenly, my daily dash down Lake Shore Drive and back to class seemed but a 12-hour workday trifle in comparison to what journalists were up against in his day.

In a journalistic sense, there would be no me without a Mr. Johnson. He was my mentor, my friend and my inspiration.

On the last day of my internship he called me to his office to say how pleased he had been with my tenure. He offered me a signed copy of his autobiography and promised that I always had a home at Jet. As I hugged him goodbye, I wondered how many celebrities and everyday folk he had embraced. I wondered how he had been brave enough to keep pushing and fighting to show -- on glossy pages that sold dreams and advertisements -- that African Americans were worth something.

With overwhelming emotion, I said, “I admire the company you built. It is wonderful.” Immediately I recognized the understatement. But somehow he understood what I meant. “Thank you,” he said with that trademark stifled laugh.

“No, thank you,” I said. And every day that I type a story, I continue thanking him. I think we all should.  

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