Joan Johnson, cofounder of Johnson Products Co.

After George and Joan Johnson divorced, she sold the company to Ivax Corp. for $60 million, which led to the couple’s reconciliation


Joan Johnson

Joan B. Johnson, who cofounded Johnson Products, the Chicago-based black hair care products company, with her husband, George Johnson, has died.

Mrs. Johnson, who was 89, died Friday from a combination of the medical ailments, stemming from a 2005 accident, according to  her son Eric.

The company’s success epitomized the Horatio Alger Myth. However, for them it wasn’t a myth. Their success was a result of hard work and smarts,

In 1954, the couple borrowed $250 from a bank, telling bank officers they needed the money to take a vacation. George Johnson said banks would loan blacks money to buy a car or to take a vacation but not to start a business.

The Johnsons used the money to found Johnson Products Co. which sold a variety of hair care products needed by African Americans.

The products included Ultra Sheen, Afro Sheen and Gentle Treatment.

The business grew from its initial $250 investment to a $23 million a year enterprise. In 1971, it became the first African American owned company to sell shares on the American Stock Exchange, later renamed NYSE America. I purchased stock in the company on the advice of my broker.

Johnson also sold its products throughout Africa. Johnson Products also was the first commercial television sponsor of Soul Train, which originated in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles.

The Johnsons were part of a successful group of African American entrepreneurs in Chicago, all with the last name of Johnson, related only by the large amount of green they had in their bank accounts.

There was John H. Johnson, founder of Johnson Publishing Co. The firm published Negro Digest, Ebony and Jet magazines. Then there was Al Johnson, owner of Al Johnson Cadillac, one of the nation’s largest Cadillac dealers.

George and Joan divorced in 1989 and she became the company’s majority owner. George Johnson was then living with a  French woman.

In 1993, Ivax Corporation, a Miami-based company that produced skin care products for the black women, purchased Johnson Products for $60 million, making Joan a multi-millionaire.  While a reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, I covered Johnson Products. Mr. Johnson repeatedly expressed shock at the size of the Ivax deal.

The lucrative sale ended any acrimony between the divorced couple. They  reconciled and remarried in 1995.

In 2004, Proctor & Gamble purchased Johnson Products before selling the business in 2009 to RCJP Acquisition, a newly formed company based in Los Angeles.

Joan Johnson was born Joan Betty Henderson October 16, 1929 in Chicago to Christine Wharton and Alonzo Henderson. Besides her husband, she is survived by three sons, a daughter, 10 grandchildren and seven great- grandchildren.

George Johnson said his wife was the love of his life.

Services for Mrs. Johnson were held Friday at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.



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