Pioneering husband and wife duo George and Joan Johnson created a path where there was none and left a legacy that reminds us that Black is beautiful.
For having such a string of ‘firsts,’ the master visionaries behind Johnsons Products Company built one of the nation’s largest black-owned businesses by catering to the halo of curls, kinks, and coils of Black folks in the 1950s in Chicago and beyond.
As a pillar among the BE100s for roughly two decades, the Johnsons founded the Chicago-based ethnic haircare products company in 1954. They couldn’t secure funding from a bank, so they used $250 from what was described as a vacation loan to invest in their operations.
The couple’s entrepreneurial vision gave birth to enduring brands such as Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen, and an illustrious line of haircare, cosmetics, and fragrances.
According to BLACK ENTERPRISE, the company had controlled roughly a third of the black hair care market by that time. It grew annual sales of $12.6 million by 1970 before going public in 1971. This monumental move lead to Johnsons Products becoming the first Black-owned company traded on the American Stock Exchange.
The company’s first product was the Ultra Wave, a hair relaxer for men. Then came Ultra Sheen, a hair straightener for women that offered a DIY process in the comfort of one’s home instead of spending uncomfortable hours at a hair salon.
But as the civil rights and Black Power movements gained strength, Johnson Products adapted to the changes induced by the rebellion against the white status quo.
Produced in the late 1960s, Afro-Sheen was one of Johnson’s best-known products during a period when the “afro” reemerged out of the first historically recorded natural hair movement, Black is Beautiful movement.
From Afro Sheen’s “beautiful products for beautiful people,” advertisements, illuminated screens with afro-crowed Black men and women in all their glory. This visual representation instilled more pride and heritage into the community, giving rise to a revolution.
Later Johnson Products’ offerings were expanded to such products as the Ultra Sheen shampoo and conditioner, as well as the Afro Sheen blowout kit, and the not-too-heavy blue grease (or green if you needed the extra dry formula).
As more and more competitors began entering the African American hair care industry, the Federal Trade Commission forced Johnson Products to put warning labels on lye-based products, without requiring white-owned Revlon to do the same. But this was just one of many setbacks the company had to overcome, time and time again.
Paving the way for historic impact
Born in 1927, in a Mississippi three-room sharecropper’s shack, George E. Johnson, Sr. found his niche in the cosmetics industry as a production chemist for S.B. Fuller, a black-owned cosmetics firm. That was where he would develop the hair relaxer for his own business enterprise.
During his journey into entrepreneurship, Johnson became the first Black American to sit on the board of directors for the largest utility company in Illinois, Commonwealth Edison.
Joan Betty Henderson was born on Oct. 16, 1929 in the South Side of Chicago. Throughout her career, Joan was dedicated to empowering and developing other African American businesses. She was respected for her positive impact on social justice in the Chicago community.
With her integrity and her husband’s creativity, the company continued to see success and growth and strived for expansion. One of these efforts included training cosmetologists on how to properly use Johnson Products in their salons.
Black sponsorship and investment
Known for her great sense of style, Joan took pride in sponsoring and organizing the Congressional Black Caucus Fashion Show. She was also a board member of the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art.
An advocate for women, Joan served as a trustee at Spelman College, the historically Black women’s college in Atlanta, and offered a select set of HBCU students with annual scholarships according to her obituary.
Together, the Johnsons helped propel Black culture into the mainstream with their sponsorship of the groundbreaking Soul Train, the first nationally syndicated Black TV program backed by a Black-owned company.
After the couple divorced in the early 1990s, Joan gained control of the company while George stepped down as chief executive and was replaced by their son, Eric, until he later exited his position.
Shortly after, Joan sold it to white-owned IVAX, which had a line of skin-care products aimed at black customers. The $67 million sale inspired the groundbreaking BE cover story that asked the question that still sparks contention to this day: “Should Black Businesses Be Sold To Whites?”
However, this wouldn’t be the end of the power couple, as they eventually reunited and became joint recipients of BLACK ENTERPRISE‘s highest entrepreneurial honor, the A.G. Gaston Lifetime Achievement Award, in 2002.
Joan died on Sept. 6, 2019 at her home in Chicago. She was 89.