Magazine’s early financial success reveals a hidden figure

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Doris E. Saunders

JANS Ebony magazine’s November (1955) anniversary issue celebrated their success and a clear vision that Ebony planned to be around for a while ( Today, that issue provides persuasive evidence pointing to Doris E. Saunders (1921-2014) as a pioneer and a hidden figure in the early financial success of Ebony magazine and thus Johnson Publishing Company (JPC). The evidence also suggests the history of women in marketing research needs to be reexamined and re-framed with consideration of the truth of the magnitude of Saunders’ and JPC’s groundbreaking work. 

It appears Saunders’ market research efforts as early as 1949 were unprecedented. This woman’s insights and research opened the door for Ebony to “emerge as the leader in introducing hundreds of them (advertisers) to a $16 billion Negro market that had virtually gone untapped.” 

Before joining what was to become Johnson Publishing Company, Saunders was the highest-ranking African American in the Chicago Public Library system. She worked at the Main Library downtown in the social sciences and business division. Her specialty was researching and explaining census, demographics, and business data, needed by the predominately white business clientele. 

Saunders related that in January 1949, wanting to escape workplace racism, she wrote to Ebony Publisher John H. Johnson indicating her desire to establish a special, in-house research library for his company. The library would provide editorial and advertising staff with research and reference materials on the “Negro” including demographic, marketing, and business information and data. Johnson offered Saunders the job immediately. 

In six years, Saunders’ initiative and expertise had helped Ebony land on the radar of top trade publications who noted the magazine’s amazing advertising growth from 18-20 pages per issue in 1946 to an average of 60 pages per issue in 1955. 

“Ebony Pioneers in Negro Advertising” is the headline with Saunders’ photo prominently displayed in the 10th anniversary issue of Ebony ( The magazine states, “Saunders heads staff of researchers who supply marketing and census information for the Ebony advertising department and its clients.” 

Saunders’ daughter Ann C. Saunders recently stated, “My mother’s contribution to JPC’s economic success and marketing history has been overlooked at best and at worst, left out. The truth clarifies and expands our understanding of marketing history and JPC’s history and its impact on business, society, and culture. This information does not diminish the contribution John H. Johnson made to the Black Press, Black business, the African American community, American enterprise, and the African Diaspora. Mr. Johnson and his publications were ambassadors and a service to the community.” 

Saunders’ contributions to JPC were never limited to her responsibilities as librarian, market researcher, or book division director. She also documented her observations and research regarding Johnson Publishing Company’s first 35 years 1942-1977 (thesis includes a case study of Ebony magazine). 

Her career beyond JPC was rich, diverse, and full of “paying it forward” (!.)

Through her post-Ebony/JPC career Saunders recognized JPC as a tremendous springboard for her lifelong success. In a 2004 letter to John Johnson, she stated, “I would not be me today if you had not been you.” One can now ask… if JHJ would have “succeeded against the odds” without Doris E. Saunders. 


Doris Elaine Saunders, business executive, author, historian, editor, lecturer and educator, transitioned to eternal life on March 24, 2014 in Jackson, MS. She passed away peacefully at her home in Jackson under the care of her daughter, Ann Camille. Doris dedicated her life to the education of future generations and was an early leader in the preservation of the history of the African American experience. Known for her love of reading and journalism, she worked tirelessly in these various pursuits until illness began to rob her of her amazing memory. She received her BA from Roosevelt University in 1951; her MS and MA degrees from Boston University in 1977; and she completed postgraduate work (ABD) at Vanderbilt University in 1984. 

Born on August 8, 1921, in Chicago, IL to parents Alvesta Stewart Evans and Thelma (Rice) Evans, Doris joined St. Edmund’s Church at age seven and was confirmed there in June of 1934. She continued to be a faithful Episcopalian throughout her life, attending St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and St. Christopher’s Church in Jackson, after relocating at Jackson State University. 

Doris realized at an early age that she had a voracious appetite for literature and consumed it in its various forms with a passion. Using her literary talents, she began her career in the Chicago Public Library system (CPL) in 1942, later becoming the library’s first African American principle reference librarian in their Social Science and Business departments. 

In January 1949 she accepted the position of librarian with the young firm of Johnson Publishing Company (JPC), which was just moving its offices into the old Hursen Funeral Home at 18th and Michigan Avenue. Following the move, she was instrumental in cataloguing company documents and materials and specialized in doing background research for JPC’s editorial staff. She later became Associate Editor of Negro Digest Magazine and, in 1961, Director of JPC’s Book Division. While serving three stints in that capacity, from 1961 – 1966, 1973 – 1977, and again from 1997 – 2000, Doris contributed her editorial and compilation skills to numerous JPC publications, including: “The Day They Marched,” 1963; “The Kennedy Years and the Negro,” 1964; “The Negro Handbook,” 1966; “The Ebony Handbook,” 1974; “Black Society,” 1976; “DuBois: A Pictorial Biography,” 1979; “Wouldn’t Take Nothin’ for My Journey,” 1981; and “Special Moments in African-American History: The Photographs of Moneta Sleet, Jr.,” in 1998. 

In addition to her career with JPC and while raising two children, Doris was a columnist for the Chicago Daily Defender and Chicago Courier newspapers from 1966 to 1973. Doris also held several positions of higher learning in Chicago. From 1968 to 1970 she served as the Director of Community Relations for Chicago State University (CSU). In that capacity Doris was instrumental in CSU’s decision to locate its campus within Chicago’s African American community. Doris also held the position of Staff Associate at the University of Illinois-Chicago, 1970-1973. 

Along with her work in print media, Doris held positions in radio and television throughout the last four decades of the 20th century. In Chicago she hosted the radio show “The Think Tank,” 1971-72; she was both writer and producer of the television show, “Our People,” 1968-70; and in Jackson, MS., she produced/hosted the radio program, “Faculty Review Forum” at station WJSU, 1987-93. 

After completing two graduate degrees at Boston University, in 1977 Doris accepted the position of Professor of Print Journalism and Mass Communications at Jackson State University. In 1991 she became chair of the Department of Mass Communications, a position she held until her retirement in 1996. During this period Doris was also a Distinguished Minority lecturer at the University of Mississippi (Ox- ford, MS), 1986-88, and a contributing author to many professional journals, magazines, and newspapers including the Jackson Advocate, and Today’s Mississippi, Tomorrow’s South. Doris was a mentor and friend to students, faculty, and staff in the Department of Mass Communications at Jackson State University. Her leadership, industry, and successful solicitation of a grant of $500,000.00 from the state legislature of Mississippi in the early ‘90’s was the seed capital for the establishment of Channel 23 TV, (now JSU-TV) on the campus of Jackson State University. 

Doris was also a member of numerous organizations including: The Episcopal Church Women (ECW); The Arts Alliance, Jackson-Hinds County MS, The Southside Community Art Center (Chicago, IL), National Association of Media Women (NAMW), the Committee On Racial Reconciliation of The Episcopal Diocese of MS; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and a founding charter member and officer of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters (BAAL). She loved engaging with people, travel, genealogy, and family and she developed a guide for documenting one’s family history called Ancestor HuntingTM

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Magazine’s early financial success reveals a hidden figure

By Jackson Advocate News Service
April 1, 2024