“[N]ot just a magazine but her most trusted confidante,” Essence was founded in 1968 by banker Edward Lewis, insurance salesman Clarence Smith, New Jersey ad salesman Jonathan Blount and graphics consultant Cecil Hollingsworth. It was the first general-interest magazine aimed at African-American women. The magazine was initially funded mostly by a $13,000 loan from Freedom National Bank (started by Jackie Robinson) and “family, friends, credit cards."
"The idea was conceived around the time when Dr. King was killed; when Robert Kennedy was killed; during the Olympics of 1968. There was a desire to get young blacks into the media business.,” Mr. Lewis told Ad Age this year. “It was about creating our own destiny in regards to the press. It allowed us to present the stories, pictures and aspirations that we wanted to present."
Famed photographer Gordon Parks signed on as art director in 1969, and the first issue — featuring a female model with an Afro and the pitch to "delight and to celebrate the beauty, pride, strength, and uniqueness of all Black women” — hit newsstands in 1970, with a circulation of 50,000.
Hollingsworth and Blount left Essence in 1971 over disagreements about Playboy’s investment of $250,000 and resulting control over the publication. Smith remained on until 2002, with Lewis now serving as the last original member.
The journalist Susan Taylor started as a fashion and beauty editor at the magazine’s founding, and feature models who displayed the "whole range of black beauty — from ebony to ivory” in affordable, stylish clothing. She went on to serve as editor-in-chief of the magazine from 1981 to 2000, then worked as the magazine’s publications director until 2017.
Compassionate as she was clever, Taylor is credited with championing black woman’s fiction while also deeply caring about her staff’s work-life balance, spiritual health and career advancement.