Interviews

'Essence' Founder Clarence Smith, Part 1

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Clarence O. Smith, the founder of Essence magazine, talks about his career, his inspiration — the late publisher John H. Johnson — and his new record label.

ED GORDON, host:

If the name Clarence Smith doesn't sound familiar, the magazine he helped establish certainly will. Thirty-five years ago, Smith co-founded Essence, the leading lifestyle publication for African-American women. The magazine has since been sold, and Smith left the magazine altogether three years ago. These days, the business mogul continues to shape black media culture with his newest enterprise: You Entertainment. In the first of two parts of our discussion, Smith recalls that even in the early days of Essence, he knew the magazine would be successful.

Mr. CLARENCE SMITH (Co-Founder, Essence): I think we looked at Johnson Publishing, Ebony magazine and Jet, and I think John Johnson served as a kind of a mentor, just by the fact that the Johnson publishing company was so successful and I think it gave us the feeling that we could do no less. We knew that we were coming along about 35 years later than he did and the challenges that we faced, as large and difficult as they were, we knew they were not as difficult as those that he faced, and we did think that Essence was a great idea with a wonderful audience that was waiting for it. And I think we expected it to become pretty much what it did become. The audience, I think, accepted Essence's mission and the execution of that mission almost immediately. I think that we were blessed to have two really great editors that understood exactly what the magazine should be, what its message should be, and how it should serve the market. And, of course, those two are Marcia Ann Gillespie, who really was the editor for the first 10 years of the magazine, and then Susan Taylor, who took over after her, and edited it for the next 25 years.

GORDON: Let me ask you about the sale of Essence. I'm curious how you felt when in fact you sold the rest of the magazine and how difficult, if at all, for you that was.

Mr. SMITH: Well, that--I was not there when the rest of it was sold, because I had left the magazine three years ago, when the first part of it was sold. It was not a transaction that I favored, but it wasn't a transaction that I could prevent. The option that was open to me was to simply leave, and that's what I did. And, you know, I think that there's not been enough time that has passed, from that time to this, to determine what the magazine's future will be, but the mission that we all started with, I hope that it remains true to that, and no matter what the politics may be, by the way. And, you know, that's pretty much all I can say about it.

GORDON: Was it your upbringing, Clarence, or someone that--who helped to raise you? I've known you for some time now and I know you to be someone who is earnest in wanting to make sure that not only with your success, that you've risen but the idea of bringing the community along. Where did you find that?

Mr. SMITH: I was raised in a little community in the northeast Bronx, which was called Williamsbridge. Interesting community in the sense that the people were really sub blue-collar people, like many blacks were then, but they had a collegial spirit that emanated in that community that we all became a part of, and all the youngsters growing up had wonderful role models to look to, people who built families and worked hard and it was mostly black, but not totally. And the schools that we went to back then were integrated schools so that we got a chance, at a very early stage in our lives, to interface with others. And I just think that we were raised by men and women who gave us values and got us to understand that we had a responsibility to grow up to be with people who made a productive life and who looked after the larger community, as well, and I guess it comes from there. My parents were that way and they instilled that in all of us that they weren't really different from the other people in the neighborhood who raised us as much as they did.

GORDON: Clarence, you had so much to do with shaping the image of black America through the magazine's pages. I'm wondering if you could share with me where you see the image of black America today, what you like and what you don't like.

Mr. SMITH: What I like is that the bridges that have been built, that young African-American men and women can now walk easily across, is gratifying, and some of the extraordinary accomplishments that have emanated from our struggle and success are clear. I mean, you know, we all remember when the armed forces were segregated, and now we have--we've had a guy who came out of City College, who ends up being, you know, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then secretary of State, and now we have a black woman who's secretary of State. And really not talking about party here because that's really not important at this--to make this point is that we've seen extraordinary rise of African-American men and women, they've ascended to positions that were almost unthinkable when we started Essence. So that's the part that I'm most proud of and it's good to see that young people have a level of confidence in their future.

On the other hand, the part that I'm not happy about is that I think that there has been a deterioration in the basic family structure, and in the values with which we're now being raised. I think the strength of the black church, which was always the glue that held the African-American community together, is somewhat fragmented now. Family life is not as powerful as it was, and so the kids are missing out, I think, on a lot of the solid values that good strong family life brings. So those are the things that--I don't think there's a real sense of understanding of that history, that the--and the bridges that we crossed over. I just think that there's--a lot of that has been lost and I think we suffer as a result of it.

GORDON: Clarence Smith is co-founder of Essence magazine. His latest venture is a record label, You Entertainment. Tomorrow, I'll continue my conversation with Clarence Smith as he turns the love pages of his company's first CD.

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