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Eunice W. Johnson, widow of John H. Johnson and co-founder of Johnson Publishing Co., died Sunday. She was 93.
Johnson, an astute business woman and fashion maven started Johnson Publishing (No. 15 on the BE 100s Industrial Service Companies list with $328 million in revenues) with her husband John H. Johnson in 1942 using a $500 loan. Since that time, the company has become a household name distributing a family of products including Ebony and JET magazines, and Fashion Fair Cosmetics.
But the Ebony Fashion Fair, the world’s largest traveling fashion show, featuring black models and designers, was Eunice Johnson’s claim to fame.
“Under her direction, Mrs. Johnson made a tremendous impact on the fashion industry, showcasing the best in style on African American models of various shapes, sizes and skin tones,” Johnson Publishing said in a statement published on EbonyJet.com.
Growing up in Selma, Alabama, Johnson was fascinated by fashion, according to a 2005 article in Ebony magazine. She was an accomplished seamstress and made shirts for her father. “My father used to like to show off the shirts I made for him,” Johnson said in the interview. “I made those collars that stood up, and worked those button holes by hand. It’s amazing how praise can make you feel so good.”
Johnson served as producer and director of the Ebony Fashion Fair from 1961 until 2009 when its fall tour was canceled due to economic challenges that affected its corporate sponsors. Ebony Fashion Fair is scheduled to return to Florida in February.
The show appeared in more than 200 cities across the United States, the Caribbean, and England. Since its inception the show has raised over $55 million for charity and scholarship funds, allowing hundreds of young people the opportunity to further their education.
Johnson was also involved in the creation of Fashion Fair Cosmetics in 1973 as an answer to problems black models were having in finding make up that matched their darker skin tones.
Chicago-based Johnson Publishing announced a reorganization of Ebony and JET magazines in 2009 that required all current employees to reapply for their jobs. The company is rumored to be looking for a buyer for its magazines.
Born in Selma, Alabama, on April 4, 1916, Johnson received her bachelor’s degree in sociology with a minor in art, from Talladega College in Alabama. She earned a master’s degree in Social Work from Loyola University in Chicago. In addition, she received Honorary Doctorate degrees from Talladega College in 1988 and Shaw University in 1990.
Johnson was an active member of the Women’s Board of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Women’s Division of the United Negro College Fund. In 1959, Vice President Richard Nixon appointed Johnson as a diplomat to accompany his wife to the inauguration of Liberian President William R. Tolbert Jr.
Prior to her death, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York had planned a tribute luncheon this month in her honor. Johnson is survived by her daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, the current CEO of Johnson Publishing.