Joan Johnson Remembered

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Chicago says farewell to co-founder of Johnson Products Company

By Sally King

She was the equivalent of what Eunice Johnson was to Johnson Publishing Company (JPC).

A fashionista before the term was popularized, Joan Henderson Johnson was a stylish woman whose image was frequently found on the social pages of Chicago publications. Joan Johnson died September 6 at age 89.

Johnson was best known as a Chicago businesswoman. She, with her husband George, founded in 1954 what would become a global enterprise, the Johnson Products Company.

Headquartered in its heyday in Chicago at 85th and Lafayette Avenue, near the Dan Ryan Expressway, Johnson Products Company with George and Joan Johnson at the helm, parlayed a $250 investment into a multi-million dollar company. Johnson Products Company became the first Black-owned company to be publicly traded on the American Stock Exchange.

Chicago born and raised, Joan Johnson lent her business acumen to several area entities. She was invited to sit on the women’s boards of both the University of Chicago and Northwestern University and also the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art, serving the boards from 1975 to the present. Philanthropically, she privately supported several other organizations, among them not-for-profit, service-based Links, Inc.

In an exclusive interview with the Crusader, George Johnson and his son Eric Johnson shared how he and his wife were involved early on with the Civil Rights movement in Chicago.

In 1966 George, who was chairman of Independence Bank at the time, encountered a young Jesse Jackson Sr. speaking on the Quadrangle at the University of Chicago. George Johnson was so taken with the young man that with his wife Joan’s approval, he introduced him to the bank’s Executive Committee. Thereafter the Johnsons and the Executive Committee supported Jackson, financially and otherwise, in his Operation Breadbasket endeavors.

AFRO SHEEN BOOSTED the success of Johnson Products Company.

More civil rights connections followed as the tentacles of the enterprising couple’s thriving business operation reached from Chicago to across the nation. Ultra Sheen, Afro Sheen, and other ethnic brands became household names, as well known as the names of prominent civil rights spokespersons.

Joan and George developed a relationship with rising civil rights leader Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When King announced his appointment of Jackson as head of Operation Breadbasket, the announcement took place in 1966 in the cafeteria at Johnson Products Company.

At King’s first visit to JPC on Lafayette Avenue, he looked around at the manufacturing facility, the office suites and the impressive staff and remarked, “now, this is Black power.”

When Independence Bank executive committee members co-signed a $140,000 loan to King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) at the Johnsons’ recommendation, King told them it was the “most he had received” at the time.

THE FORMER HEADQUARTERS of Johnson Products Company on the South Side where many of the haircare products were produced.

Joan Johnson’s influence in the growth and development of Johnson Products Company began early in the company’s history. In the beginning it was she who did the books and developed the practices and protocols that kept the company running smoothly. Working as a team, Joan was the inside person. George Johnson says that it was because he “had a valuable and trusted ally inside,” that he was able to work the outside, generating sales and distribution leads.

STORE SHELVES WERE packed with Johnson Products as sales skyrocketed.

A woman who wore many hats, Joan put her business sense to use as a “fashionista.” Her son Eric says it was “her perfect taste” that caused the Congressional Black Caucus to welcome her creation of a fashion show for the Caucus in the early 80s.

The Caucus’ runway exploded with high profile fashion from designers such as Galliano and Pucci. The advent of such high-end fashion was new for the Black community.

Considered the family matriarch, son Eric noted that his mother “had a unique and personal involvement with each family member.” He said that “if asked each person would tell a different story about who Joan Johnson was, but you would know they were all talking about the same person.”

Mrs. Johnson is survived by her husband George; sons Eric, John, and George Jr.; and daughter Joan; she had 10 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.

Services for Joan Johnson were held September 13 at Trinity United Church of Christ.

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