Updated: Feb 5, 2020
Another Black American power couple we'd like to highlight is George & Joan Johnson. Together they established Johnson Products Company, a cosmetics empire based in Chicago, Illinois. Johnson Products brought us Afro Sheen, Ultra Sheen and many other products that were staples in the Black community.
George Johnson was born in Richton, Mississippi on June 12, 1927 in a three room sharecropper’s shack. At the age of two, he moved with his mother to Chicago after his parents separated. Since the age of eight George worked a variety of jobs, having to drop out of school to work full time. Shining shoes, working as a busboy as well as setting pins at the local bowling alley. In 1944 he took a job which changed his life and led to him becoming a successful entrepreneur.
Johnson went to work for Samuel B. Fuller who owned the Fuller Products company as a production chemist. During this time he met the woman who would become the love of his life and business partner. Joan Betty Henderson was born and raised in Chicago in 1929. She attended what is now known as Phillip Academy High School. She married George who was her high school sweetheart in 1950.
Ten years after working at Fuller, Johnson decided with encouragement from a coworker to start his own product line. In 1954 he and Joan left the Fuller company and started the Johnson Product line with $250 borrowed from what was described as a vacation loan, because they couldn’t get funding from a bank. They teamed up with a hair stylist who had an idea for a hair straightener and came up with their first product. Initially they focused on the African American male hair care market, as most cosmetics companies owned and operated by Black Americans mainly focused on Black women. The company's first product was the Ultra Wave, a hair relaxer for men. Then came Ultra Sheen, a hair straightener for women that could be used in the comfort of one’s home instead of having to spend long hours at the hair salon.
The Johnson Product line hit the ground running. In 1964, just ten years after its launch, sales hit over $1 million, increasing to $4 million by 1967. In 1970, sales hit $12 million, growing to $40 million by 1976. Johnson Products controlled a third of the Black hair care market at its peak and employed more than 500 people. George Johnson was the face of Johnson Products, but Joan actively ran the day to day operations. She handled the books in the company’s inception and as the company grew, served as the treasurer and comptroller because of her natural gift with money and finances.
The products that were introduced contributed to the companies great success. One of which was Afro Sheen, which became one of their best known products. It was released in the late 1960’s when the afro and natural hair became more popular amongst Black Americans, during the growth of the black nationalist movement. As the company continued to see success and growth they began to focus efforts on expansion, such as training cosmetologist on how to properly use Johnson Products in their salons. They founded Independence Bank in 1964, a Black owned financial institution that served its community. Johnson Products became the exclusive sponsor behind the nationally syndicated show Soul Train. In 1971, Johnson Products became the first African American owned company on the American Stock Exchange and George Johnson became the first Black American to sit on the board of directors for the largest utility company in Illinois, Commonwealth Edison.
The Johnson's regularly gave back to their community. Joan Johnson was a member of women's boards at the University of Chicago and Northwestern and served as a trustee to Spelman College. Giving not only financial contributions but also art and culture to the Spelman Museum of Fine Art. She gave an annual scholarship to a select set of HBCU students every year, further providing opportunities of higher education. As a style icon and always fashionable, she sponsored and organized the Congressional Black Caucus Fashion show. The company even provided modeling opportunities for Black women since being a model on one of the Johnson Product boxes was considered its own form of Black celebrity.
In 1993 the Johnson Products company was sold to Ivax Corp for $67 million with the Johnson’s retaining ownership of 54% of the company. Since then the company has been bought and sold by other companies, one of which was Proctor & Gamble in 2004 and marketed under that name. In 2009 a group of African American investment firms brought the company back from P&G to keep it in the Black community and reestablish it as an African American owned company.
George and Joan Johnson are an example of Black Excellence and stability, building an international cosmetics empire while raising four children. Truly one of the power couples of their generation. At 92 years of age George is still with us today, unfortunately his beloved Joan passed away in September 2019 at 89 years of age. Their legacy lives on in the inspiration they provide to future generations of Black entrepreneurs worldwide.
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