Obituary: Joan Johnson, the chief of a black hair care revolution

Joan Johnson (right) with her husband George (left)

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Getty Pictures

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Joan Johnson co-founded Johnson Merchandise along with her husband George


Joan Johnson will likely be remembered for serving to thousands and thousands of African Individuals reclaim their cultural identification.

Collectively along with her husband she co-founded Johnson Merchandise, considered one of America’s most profitable black-owned companies, and the primary to be listed on the American Inventory Change.


The corporate developed many modern merchandise to assist members of the black group take care of their hair.

However the actual root of the corporate’s success was in the way in which it recognised the political energy of hair and used its platform to champion what made African Individuals completely different.

“I take a look at my mom as a pioneer,” mentioned Joan Johnson’s son Eric in an announcement after her loss of life final week aged 89. “Due to her, folks have been in a position to accomplish issues they possibly did not assume they may.”

Joan Betty Henderson was born in Chicago in 1929, although little is thought about her upbringing.

On the age of 21 she married her highschool sweetheart, George Johnson, a former salesman who labored as a chemist for a magnificence merchandise firm.

It was the period of segregation, and sweetness requirements in America have been set based on the bodily attributes of white folks. “The politics of respectability have been the rule of the day,” mentioned Renée Richardson Gosline, a senior lecturer of administration science on the Massachusetts Institute of Expertise (MIT).

Many African Individuals felt the stress to straighten their naturally curly hair simply to slot in amongst their white contemporaries. Thriving amongst their contemporaries was a fair larger problem.

Some straightening merchandise have been out there, however to not the mainstream client, and George noticed a chance. In 1954, with a $250 mortgage, he teamed up with a barbershop proprietor to create a hair straightener for black males.

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Activists like Angela Davis used the afro hair type as an emblem of insurrection and black delight

The product, Extremely Wave Hair Tradition, was trialled on the store. With the barbershop so busy, George was left to take care of each the manufacturing and the gross sales sides, and their partnership ultimately splintered.

He and his spouse later teamed up and collectively they went on to discovered Johnson Merchandise. Success got here virtually instantly.

Joan Johnson labored behind the scenes as the corporate’s treasurer, coping with orders, accounts and logistics, and was an unsung hero in its success. Throughout her first 12 months, they greater than quadrupled gross sales to $75,000.

As enterprise continued to increase, the couple have been compelled to maneuver warehouses a number of occasions to deal with the corporate’s newfound progress.

Six tales about black girls’s hair

There have been many limitations alongside the way in which. One in all their buildings – primarily based in a predominantly white neighbourhood of Chicago – had its home windows incessantly smashed, and was as soon as firebombed.

hearth additionally burned down a manufacturing plant in 1964, destroying the corporate’s stock and killing an worker.

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NMAH, Smithsonian

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With Afro Sheen, Johnson Merchandise tapped right into a watershed second in American political historical past

Regardless of setbacks, the couple achieved $1m in annual gross sales by 1961. Additionally they launched a brand new shampoo, a cream rinse, and Extremely Sheen – a girls’s hair straightening product that made the method cheaper and fewer time consuming.

However because the civil rights and Black Energy actions gained power all through the 1960s, notions of magnificence – not simply politics – started to vary, and plenty of African Individuals turned away from straighteners.

As a substitute, activists like Angela Davis sported pure afros, as an indication of insurrection in opposition to the white establishment and delight in African American identification. In response, Johnson Merchandise launched Afro Sheen, a product to keep up afros, not change them.

The agency additionally tapped into this historic watershed second by means of an promoting marketing campaign championing the pure great thing about African Individuals.

By the tip of the 1960s, Johnson Merchandise dominated the black hair-care market through the decade, and made $10m in annual gross sales.

The corporate’s message “was a lot deeper than magnificence”, mentioned Renée Richardson Gosline, the MIT lecturer.

“It was an announcement about being happy with who you’re as a black individual, which was comparatively revolutionary on the time.”

As the corporate’s nationwide profile grew, so did curiosity from buyers, and in 1971 Joan Johnson oversaw the corporate’s public itemizing on the American Inventory Change, the third largest alternate within the US.

The corporate additionally weathered an financial recession three years later, in addition to a authorities order to print warnings on any merchandise containing lye.

Their success attracted business giants like Revlon into the market, as different firms realised the potential shopping for energy of a group that they had beforehand missed.

Competitors grew, and so did segmentation inside black hair types as African Individuals sought to precise their particular person identities.

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Media captionLadies speak about why they love their pure hair

Over time Johnson Merchandise gained a repute for lagging behind market developments, and in its waning years the corporate was riddled with household feuds.

In 1989, after eight straight years of losses, Johnson divorced her husband, took management of the corporate and was appointed as chairman.

Extra lives in profile:

George stepped down as chief govt and was changed by the Johnsons’ son, Eric, who had been president till that point. However household loyalties clashed with enterprise priorities – Eric ended up ousting his two brothers, reportedly as a result of he was sad with their work.

Eric Johnson was broadly credited with revitalising the corporate, however stepped down in 1992 after refusing to advertise his youthful sister to a extra senior place.

Some household rifts did heal, and Johnson went on to marry George once more after his second marriage resulted in divorce. However as monetary difficulties mounted, she oversaw the sale of the household enterprise to pharmaceutical large Ivax.

On account of the $73m deal, Johnson Merchandise handed from black possession for the primary time in its historical past. Some noticed the acquisition as an indication of racial progress. For others, it marked a step again for the African American group, and the lack of an emblem so intently tied with black identification.

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Media captionThe ladies collaborating within the pure hair motion

The legacy of Joan Johnson, and the corporate she helped construct, is simple.

She and her household donated to a number of African American group teams, and Johnson served on the boards of organisations together with Spelman Faculty, a traditionally black girls’s faculty in Atlanta.

Johnson Merchandise additionally helped propel black tradition into the mainstream by sponsoring Soul Prepare, a music and dance present from Chicago that later turned nationally syndicated for 35 years.

“[Johnson Products] wasn’t some summary factor to folks within the African American group,” mentioned Katherine Phillips, a professor of administration at Columbia Enterprise Faculty, in an interview with the BBC.

“It was an precise household who have been working onerous each day and serving the wants of the African American group when no-one else was doing that.”