In a statement, the company he founded, Johnson Publishing Co., noted that he died at Northwestern Memorial Hospital Monday in the 60th anniversary year of Ebony Magazine.
The company says Johnson died after an extended illness.
Johnson broke new ground by bringing positive portrayals of blacks into a mass-market publication and encouraging corporations to use black models in advertising aimed at black consumers.
"We have lost a legend, a pioneer, a visionary," said Earl G. Graves, publisher of Black Enterprise magazine. "As an American, he was ahead of his time. Ebony is part of Americana now."
Born into an impoverished family in Arkansas City, Arkansas, Johnson went into business with a $500 loan secured by his mother's furniture and built a publishing and cosmetics empire.
Johnson built Ebony from a circulation of 25,000 on its first press run in November 1945 to a monthly circulation of 1.9 million in 1997. Jet magazine, a newsweekly, was founded in 1951 and has a circulation of more than 954,000. A third magazine, Ebony Man, a monthly men's magazine, was started in 1985.
Johnson launched Ebony just after World War II, as black soldiers were returning home. At the time there were no black players in major league baseball and little black political representation.
With blacks' incomes far below white Americans, the idea of a black publishing company was widely dismissed. Civil rights leader Roy Wilkins advised Johnson to forget the publishing business and save himself a lot of disappointment; Wilkins later acknowledged he gave Johnson bad advice.
Ebony - named by Johnson's wife, Eunice - was created to counter stereotypical portrayals of blacks in white-owned newspapers, magazines and broadcast media. The monthly magazine highlights the positive in black life.
"We try to seek out good things, even when everything seems bad," Johnson once said in explaining the magazine's purpose. "We look for breakthroughs, we look for people who have made it, who have succeeded against the odds, who have proven somehow that long shots do come in."
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington said it became a point of pride for blacks to display the magazines on their coffee tables.
"It was a symbol of the emergence of the black middle class and the ability to strive for financial success, not just in our community but on an even playing field," she said.