This is a requiem for a print stalwart. Ebony magazine, published 12 times a year since 1945, has given way to the online media revolution. The last print issue, above, was published in September 2016. The title continues as an online community at www.ebony.com.
Begun by entrepreneurs John and Eunice Johnson, Ebony was originally conceived of as a pictorial news magazine counterpoint to the popular Life and Look. The magazine, now published solely online, claims to be “the number 1 source for an authoritative perspective on the Black community…[which] reaches nearly 11 million readers…and ignites conversation, promotes empowerment and celebrates aspiration.” Johnson’s vision drew subscribers, but it took till 1972 for him to be named Magazine Publisher of the Year.
Ebony’s focus on African American life used/s features on successful people from many walks of life to represent a broader range of the Black experience in American life. While “mainstream” magazines featured (and still do) very few African American models, advertising copy, or success stories, Ebony presented these as normative. Regular features included marriage and relationship advice, specialized grooming and skin care tips*, business and education advice, alongside spotlights on Black entertainers, educators, politicians and sports stars.
In 1951, the publisher started a sister publication, Jet, which came out weekly in a small digest size. This title went strictly online in 2014. Using it’s weekly format, Jet helped ignite the Civil Rights Movement by publishing stories and details that weren’t being covered by white media companies.Their publication of photos of a young Mississippi man who was lynched in 1955 is often credited as the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Both Jet and Ebony have been digitized extensively by Google Books, which you can see here:
Eunice Johnson had a longstanding interest in fashion. From a prominent family in Selma, Alabama, Eunice decided to take her interest in beautiful clothing and bring it to the black middle class. In 1958 she called up the couturiers she bought her own clothes from and put together a fashion road show, the annual Ebony Fashion Fair. The show featured black models and often highlighted black designers, and it toured all throughout America. The 1978 list of tour dates included such cities as Fort Wayne, IN; Wilmington, DE, Dayton, OH; Evanston and Joliet, IL; Chattanooga, TN; and Mobile, AL. In 1961, the tour was invited to the White House, despite the models and stage managers being forbidden to use the front door in most southern restaurants.
The show continued until 2009, when Eunice died at the age of 93. It had the lasting impact of putting the African American take on high fashion front and center in American life, and engaging middle America in a world that had previously felt very far from their experience.
In 2016, Johnson sold his publishing company to a private equity corporation. The title continues in an online format.
*Kinky curly hair and dark skin have very different care needs than Anglo-European straight hair and pale skin.