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Spelman Celebrates the Life and Legacy of Former Trustee Joan Johnson

September 2019

Spelman Celebrates the Life and Legacy of Joan JohnsonThe Spelman College community mourns the passing of philanthropist, entrepreneur and co-founder of Johnson Products, Joan Johnson who passed Friday, Sept. 6, after suffering from a long illness. She was 89.

Johnson is known most notably for creating what would become one of the most successful companies dedicated to African American hair care. In 1954, after noticing there weren’t many products on the market that catered to natural hair textures, she and her husband, George created a multimillion-dollar brand responsible for popular products like Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen. She served as Johnson Products' treasurer and lead the company to quadruple its sales in the first year.The Chicago Sun Times reports that "The trailblazing company’s sales later grew from about $4 million in 1967 to $40 million in 1976."

In 1982, Johnson joined Spelman's Board of Trustees. Her strong affinity for Spelman subsequently led to the matriculation of two of her beloved granddaughters, Erin Marie Johnson Tolefree, C’2001, and Cara Joan Johnson Hughes, C’2003.

Johnson's support for the College was demonstrated through her generous financial contributions, as well as a donation of a portrait collection named “The Great Beautiful Black Women” to the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art.

Reflections from Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D., President Spelman College

The Spelman College community was saddened to learn of the passing of Joan Johnson, a philanthropist, entrepreneur and co-founder of Johnson Products, the first Black-owned business traded on the American Stock Exchange. Mrs. Johnson was appointed to the Spelman College Board of Trustees in 1982 and served during the tenure of two Spelman presidents, Dr. Donald M. Stewart and Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, the first Black woman president of the College.

She served as Johnson Products' treasurer and, along with her husband, George, turned a $250 investment into a multimillion-dollar corporation. Credited with bringing the culture of integrity to Johnson Products, Mrs. Johnson contributed that same business innovation and acumen as a Spelman trustee focused on the well being of students and providing them with a quality education.

We celebrate Mrs. Johnson for her shared spirit, commitment and service to the College's mission, embracing Spelman sisters and serving as a model for future servant-leaders.

Reflections from Johnnetta Betsch Cole, Ph.D., Former Spelman College President

The news of the passing of Mrs. Joan Johnson went to that place in my heart where sadness is made; and I offer my condolences to her family as they mourn the loss of their beloved one.

During my presidency at Spelman College, it was an exceptional honor for me to meet, get to know and work with Mrs. Johnson when she served as a member of Spelman’s Board of Trustees. She brought to our board meetings the same business smarts, and spirit of innovation that characterized her work with her husband, George Johnson, in co-founding the Johnson Products business. In our board meetings, Joan asked tough business questions, but behind each of her questions was a concern for the well-being of Spelman students.

Joan Johnson was a champion for civil rights and women’s rights. She believed that girls and women, no less than boys and men, have the right to a quality education, and she always expressed pride in how Spelman was “in the business” of providing that kind of education.

Over the years that she was a member of Spelman’s Board, Mrs. Johnson generously included Spelman College in her philanthropic contributions; and we are so grateful for the way that her family continues that tradition.

May Joan Johnson’s soul rest ever so peacefully.

Photo Credit: Joan Johnson | Sun-Times file photo

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