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.
"We couldn't do it then by marching, and we couldn't do it by threatening," Johnson said of gaining advertisers. "We had to persuade people that it was in their best interest to reach out to black consumers in a positive way."
According to the company's Web site, Johnson Publishing Co. Inc. is the world's largest black-owned and-operated publishing company. It also includes Fashion Fair Cosmetics and a book division.
As Johnson's companies flourished, his sphere of influence widened, winning him awards and honorary degrees for his work as publisher, businessman and black community leader, including the highest civilian honor in the U.S., the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Born Jan. 19, 1918, in Arkansas City, Ark., Johnson moved to Chicago with his family at age 15. After graduating from public schools, Johnson attended the University of Chicago and Northwestern University.
While working at the black-owned Supreme Life Insurance Co., where he started as a clerk, Johnson founded Johnson Publishing Co. in 1942. Its first magazine was Negro Digest, a journal that condensed articles of interest to blacks and published the poems and short stories of black writers.
Johnson used Supreme Life's mailing list to offer discount charter subscriptions of the digest. To persuade a distributor to take the magazine, he got co-workers to ask for it at newsstands on Chicago's South Side. Friends bought most of the copies, convincing dealers the magazine was in demand, while Johnson reimbursed the friends and resold the copies they had bought.
The tactic was used in New York, Philadelphia and Detroit, and within a year, Negro Digest was selling 50,000 copies a month. The magazine is no longer published.
Besides his wife, Eunice W. Johnson, who is secretary-treasurer of Johnson Publishing, the legendary publisher is survived by a daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, who is CEO and president of the company.
"He was in his office and alert and active until the end," said Rice, in a statement posted on the company's Web site. "He was the greatest salesman and CEO I have ever known, but he was also a father, friend and mentor with a great sense of humor who never stopped climbing mountains and dreaming dreams."
Aiming high was a lifelong theme for Johnson, who shared his thoughts on the subject in an autobiography entitled "Succeeding Against The Odds."
"I believe that the only failure is failing to try…and if my life has meaning," wrote Johnson, "it is because millions of Americans, Black and White, have proved through me that the Dream is still alive and well and working in America."