Essence magazine is a monthly publication whose target audience is African American women. It focuses on culture, beauty, fashion, and entertainment. Essence Communications Inc. (ECI) was founded in 1968 by Clarence O. Smith, Cecil Hollingsworth, Jonathan Blount, Denise M. Clark, and Edward Lewis. The original name in concept was Sapphire. Photographer Gordon Parks served as the first editorial director, and Susan L. Taylor started her career with the magazine as a freelance fashion and beauty editor before becoming Editor-in-Chief in 1981, a position she held until 2000. The first publication was released in May 1970.
The magazine had a difficult start. Obtaining funding was an issue, and three editors-in-chief left within the first year. In 1971, Marcia Ann Gillespie was hired as editor-in-chief, and her vision helped to stabilize the company. The monthly publication started with a production of approximately 50,000 copies per month, and quickly grew to over a million. Unable to see eye to eye, Blount, Hollingsworth and Parks left the company after just four years. By 1975, the magazine began to make a profit, and the departed founders decided to file a lawsuit for their share of profits in 1977. The lawsuit culminated in a three- year battle that nearly bankrupt the publication and ended when an investor bought out Hollingsworth’s shares in the company.
The topics and articles included have tackled controversial topics that include black politics, religion and sex, and the criminal justice system. Essence has also featured original works by Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka and Nikki Giovanni. During the 1980s, Taylor was the executive producer and host of an interview program broadcast called Essence: The Television Program. Taylor also started Essence Books in the 1990s, a division of ECI that yearly selects 24 books by black authors to promote and highlight.
In 2000, Time Inc. purchased a 49% percent stake from owners Clarence Smith and Edward Lewis. The company bought the remaining 51% percent in 2005, marking the first time in the company’s 34-year history, that it was no longer black-owned, and completely under white ownership. There were numerous complaints of discrimination against the company during Time’s ownership. Those disputes culminated in the sale of the company to a new organization, Essence Ventures, which was founded in 2017 by Richelieu Dennis, a Liberian businessman. Essence Ventures purchased Essence Communications for an undisclosed sum in January 2018. The company has since moved to a 100 percent-black-female leadership and continues to focus on empowering black women.
The publication has received numerous awards, including several National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) awards, and has also created several awards, that include the Essence Literary Awards, the Power Award, the Shining Star Award, and the Vanguard Award, that are all presented at the annual Black Women in Hollywood Awards, held each February, on the Thursday before the Oscars.