CHICAGO — When Herbert Nipson joined Ebony magazine’s editorial staff in 1949, the publication, founded just four years earlier, had a target readership of urban African-Americans, and its stories reflected that sensibility.
But as the civil rights movement surged to the forefront of American consciousness, Nipson helped push the magazine to a broader audience, covering issues important to rural African-Americans and branching out into sports, entertainment and the arts.
By the time he retired in 1987, after 15 years as executive editor, the magazine enjoyed national recognition and mainstream appeal for both its issue-oriented reporting and its cultural coverage.
“‘Nip,’ as we all knew him, was a loyal member of the [Johnson Publishing] community and an extraordinary presence for as long as I can remember going to the Johnson Publishing Co. offices,” said Linda Johnson Rice, the company’s chairwoman. “He was a guiding force in shaping Ebony. His vision was essential to making the magazine what it is today.”
Nipson, 95, a longtime resident of Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood, died of natural causes Saturday, Dec. 10, at his Albuquerque, N.M., home.
An avid art collector who in his younger years dreamed of being a photojournalist, Nipson served for many years as president of the board of directors of the South Side Community Arts Center in Chicago, the first black art museum in the United States when it opened in 1940.
“He was like a big brother figure to me when I was a struggling art student at the arts center,” said close friend Douglas R. Williams, an artist-in-residence at the center. “Herb would advise me, he’d critique my work, he’d even buy me groceries.
“In the creative world, we call those people angels.”
Johnson Rice, whose late father, John H. Johnson, founded Ebony, said Nipson “was instrumental in building the Johnson Publishing Co. corporate art collection.”
Born in Asheville, N.C., Nipson grew up in Clearfield, Pa. He graduated in 1940 from Penn State, where he majored in journalism. He became the first black student elected to Sigma Delta Chi, the national journalism honor society, in 1939, according to Penn State’s website chronicling African-American history at the university.
“He found out later that the only reason he was accepted was because the application for his nomination failed to note his race,” said his daughter, Maria Nipson.
During World War II, Nipson served in the Army as a driving instructor. When the war ended, he enrolled at the University of Iowa, where he received his master’s in creative writing in 1948.
The following year, Nipson joined Ebony as an associate editor who occasionally wrote celebrity profiles, including one on singer Nat King Cole in the early 1950s.
“I first met Herb when he was interviewing Nat,” said jazz promoter Dick LaPalm, who represented Cole. “I remember thinking what an excellent listener he was, how he asked great questions.”
In 1972, Nipson was promoted to executive editor. He retired after 38 years and 456 issues of Ebony in 1987.
“His staff liked him, especially the writers,” said his son, Herbert E. Nipson. “He was good about not standing in their way. He was supportive, but not so much that he couldn’t say no when he needed to.”
Nipson was married for 60 years to his wife, Velvin, who died in 2002. After her death, he spent part of the year in Albuquerque, where he lived in a house behind his daughter’s home, and his summers in Cambridge, Mass., where he would stay with his son and his family.
“If I had to describe Herb in one word, that word would be ‘real,’ “ LaPalm said. “He was someone completely comfortable in his own skin.”
Other survivors include two sisters, Martha Nipson and Elizabeth Seitz; and two grandchildren.