Updated: Jun 29, 2020
In 1969, lifelong Evanstonian and civil rights leader Bennett J. Johnson founded Path Press Inc., one of the first Black-owned publishing companies in the United States.
Celebrating its 50th year -- and Bennett's 90th -- Path Press Inc. has just published two new books -- two more are scheduled in the next few months -- and launched a brand new website.
Johnson says Path Press's mission is to publish books by and about African American and Third World people.
"I hope the new website will bring the publishing house's books to more people's attention," he says.
Johnson believes that printed books are special treasures that allow their owner access to reading them many times-- "They do not fade from sight," he explains--and that Path Press's offerings are particularly important.
"The subject of the issues and concerns of African Americans is not the focus of our text books and educational system. As a consequence, a publisher that produces books for, by, and about African Americans is of critical importance in providing this knowledge to our society."
Benjamin Gasbarra, an Evanston resident and marketing consultant who helped Johnson design and launch the website, met Bennett when they worked together on the campaign to preserve the Harley Clark mansion.
"When Bennett told me he needed a new website for Path Press, I jumped at the chance, because Path Press represents an important historical milestone for civil rights in America, and it was co-founded by one of our own," Gasbarra says.
"I encourage everyone to take a look at the amazing books in the Path Press catalog," Gasbarra says. "There's a book about Africans who were enlisted in the Nazi army in World War II called 'The Black Knights,' colorful books of African art and poetry, and a book called 'A Cleansing Flame,' about a friendship between a white solider who fought for the Confederacy and a Black solider who fought for the Union. They're books that not only capture history, but you can't put them down."
Johnson launched Path Press in 1969 with two friends, author Herman Gilbert and journalist (and later congressman) Gus Savage, and an investment of $10,000.
It began, Johnson says, "because one of our friends, Frank London Brown, had written a book, 'Trumbull Park,' that was published by Regnery Company. Although it became a best seller, Frank was not satisfied with the relationship with Regnery. So, we decided to organize our own publishing company."
The press had a rocky start -- it folded in 1972, but relaunched 10 years later with Herman Gilbert's book "The Negotiations." The book was a critical and commercial success and helped them finance additional publications--five in 1985 alone, including "American Diary," the autobiography of the late Chicago Defender editor Enoch P. Waters. Another book, 'To Benji with Love,' about the tragic death of a rising young basketball star, featured a foreword by then-Chicago Mayor Harold Washington.
Path Press went on to publish many titles, all of which are available now on its new website.
By the mid-1980s, Path Press had developed Pathways, which sought to bring Black publishers into the mainstream by uniting their publications under the banner of a single annual catalog and book fair presence. Teaming up with the Chicago Public Library, Pathways also held annual Black book bazaars in conjunction with African American History Month at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library.
By 1988, Johnson and Gilbert had also launched the African-American Book Distributors, Inc., which served a similar purpose well into the mid-1990s. It played a central role in making publishing not only possible but sustainable for other African American publishers.
At 90 years old, Johnson is a living Civil Rights legend. If you're involved in Evanston's political scene, you'll frequently run into him at community and City Council meetings when the topic affects the Black community and issues of equity and justice.
"Bennett's legacy is massive," Gasbarra says. "Whether you are aware of him or not, we've all benefited from his activism. Starting in grade school he was engaged in sit-ins in Evanston changing the way Black residents were treated. And he's continued this work throughout his life. He worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali."
In an extensive interview I did with Johnson last year about his fascinating life, I asked why he hadn't written his own book.
"Well, I felt I couldn’t serve two masters," he told me. "I’m a book publisher, so I felt that if I got off into my own thing it wouldn’t be right. The other reason: I’ve been too busy fighting the fight.
You can read an extensive Dear Evanston interview with Bennett from last year here.