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Joan Johnson, co-founder of trailblazing black hair care company, dies at 89

Launched in 1954 with her husband, Johnson Products would become the first black-owned company traded on the American Stock Exchange.

Joan Johnson | Sun-Times file photo
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Joan Johnson, who with her husband George Johnson founded a black hair care company in Chicago that would become one of the nation’s largest black-owned businesses, died last week at age 89.

Starting in 1954, Johnson Products dominated the market for black personal care products for decades, with famous trademark grooming products like Afro Sheen, Ultra Sheen and Gentle Treatment.

Her oldest son, Eric G. Johnson, said that Joan Johnson died Friday evening after long dealing with a combination of medical conditions stemming from a 2005 accident that sent her through five back surgeries.

“I have lost a lifelong friend and partner and the love of my life,” George Johnson said in a statement. “Joan will be greatly missed by her family and all of those who have come to know her.”

Together, Joan and George Johnson turned a $250 investment into the Johnson Products business, which operated out of a plant on the city’s South Side. The trailblazing company’s sales later grew from about $4 million in 1967 to $40 million in 1976.

“My dad was in many ways the creative person who could come up with brand names and products, and she brought the culture of integrity to the company,” Eric Johnson said. “People had a great deal of confidence in her ability to make the company successful.”

Joan Johnson | Provided by family

Throughout her career, Joan Johnson was dedicated to developing other African American businesses. During the ‘70s, Johnson Products became the first company to sponsor Soul Train, taking the historic music variety show from local Chicago television to a national audience.

Under the couple’s leadership, Johnson Products became the first black-owned company traded on the American Stock Exchange in 1971, and it repeatedly topped Black Enterprise Magazine’s list of the nation’s largest black-owned businesses. The magazine also awarded Joan and George Johnson its highest entrepreneurial honor, the A.G. Gaston Lifetime Achievement Award.

“For having such a string of ‘firsts’ and being comfortable in that environment, I look at my mother as a pioneer,” Eric Johnson said. “She and my father had no provided path. They created a path where there was none.”

Joan Johnson was also known as an advocate for other women, serving as trustee of Spelman College, a historically black liberal arts college for women in Atlanta. Her family said they’ll continue with her legacy of supporting the college with an annual scholarship.

Eric Johnson said his mother “set a direction and standard” for the family that she helped each of them drive toward.

“Because of her, people have been able to accomplish things they maybe didn’t think they could, and they knew all the things they had to strive for,” he said. “As matriarch of the family, she was a magnet who inspired, consoled and advised people. That’s the role she’s always played in this family from me as a child right down to her great grandchildren.”

Joan Johnson | Sun-Times file photo

Granddaughter Lecretia Capista called Joan Johnson “gracious, elegant, sophisticated and kind.

“She taught us how to be respectful of others, value education and not take anything for granted,” Capista said. “She expected us to enjoy the best of what life had to offer but to never forget about helping others.”

Joan Johnson was known for her sense of style, helping to sponsor and organize the Congressional Black Caucus Fashion Show. She was also a board member of the Museum of Contemporary Art and a member of the women’s boards at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said he always admired Joan Johnson’s style, acceptance and integrity.

“Joan was a grand lady. As her company grew, her stature grew, and she was always engaged in the community,” he said. “She was a well-respected community servant of great character who always answered calls of justice. She always could be counted on to serve righteous causes.”

Publicist Dori Wilson, who knew Joan Johnson as a friend, said she will remember her for her “wonderful wit,” great smile and beautiful sense of style.

Joan Johnson | Provided by family

“Even though we in the black community knew them as very rich and powerful, Joan was always down-to-Earth and just Joan,” Wilson said. “I had incredible admiration for all she and George accomplished and the barriers they had broken.”

In addition to her husband and oldest son, Joan Johnson is also survived by her sons John and George Jr.; daughter Joan Johnson; plus 10 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren.

Funeral services are set for Friday at Trinity United Church of Christ, 400 W. 95th St. Visitation begins at 4 p.m. with services following at 5 p.m.