In his footsteps: Johnson's company began publishing its own books to satisfy growing interest in black history.
The owner/publisher explained in chapter 40 of his 1989 autobiography, Succeeding Against the Odds: The Autobiography of a Great American Businessman (Warner Books, 1989):
"Johnson Publishing Company played a leadership role ... on three levels. First, and perhaps above all, we helped create the foundations of this struggle in the 1940s and 1950s when the ground was hard and there were few laborers. Secondly, we anticipated the changes and gave focus and form to them.
"In 1959, for example, I detected a growing interest in black history and authorized a pathfinding black history series. The response was so enthusiastic that we published a book, Lerone Bennett's Before the Mayflower, which became one of the most widely read black history books ever.
"This marked the beginning of the Johnson Publishing Company Book Division, which published a best-selling cookbook, Freda DeKnight's The Ebony Cookbook: Date With a Dish and several major dries on black history and culture."
Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America was published by Johnson Publishing Company (JPC) in 1962. Bennett, senior editor at the time of Ebony, established himself as one of America's popular historians (see SPOTLIGHT, BIBR, January-February 2004). In 41 years, there have been seven editions and 17 printings of Bennett's book, including a " New Millennium Edition," April 2003.
In addition, JPC has published at least 30 other books in more than 40 years in the following genres: history, popular culture, children and food.
Long Shelf Life
Media critic Richard Prince says, "I have been amazed at how long JPC books stay in print. I was able to get the 1965 book Marriage Across the Color Line, 30 years later at its original prince of $4.95--in hardcover!
"The first book I read about black people in Britain was Black Britannia by Edward Scobie," Prince says. "It was awesome." The 1972 book is now out of print.
The last JPC books published were the New Millennium Edition of Before the Mayflower in 2003, and in 2000, Forced Into GloW Abraham Lincoln's White Dream, the latter generating a lot of critical buzz in the publishing world. Fellow historian James McPherson reviewed it in The New York Times Book Review, and there were 263 customer reviews on Amazon.com.
"The future of the book division," Prince says, "is tied to the Johnson Publishing Company. Many people remember the Emmett Till cover photo and Lerone Bennett's books, yet the meaningful, serious days of Johnson Publishing Company are behind them. Will the book division thrive and be relevant?"
Doris E. Saunders, identified as the company librarian in Johnson's autobiography, was the original developer of the book division from 1960 to 1966. She returned to lead the book division from 1972 to 1978. Saunders is a retired journalism educator from Jackson State University [Mississippi]. Lillian Terrell is current manager of the book division. Marita Hudson, JPC promotions manager, says the company has no details to share about the future of the book division at this time.
Wayne Dawkins is author of Rugged Waters: Black Journalists Swim the Mainstream, (August Press, June 2003) and owns August Press LLC in Virginia.
For an additional list of books published by the Johnson Publishing Company, log on to www.bibookreview.com.