George Ellis Johnson Sr. founded the Johnson Products Company, which became the first black-owned corporation to be listed on the American Stock Exchange in 1971.
Born in Mississippi on June 16, 1927, in a three-room sharecropper’s shack, Johnson started the company that would later create the famous Afro Sheen, with only $500 in Chicago, Illinois.
Following his parent’s separation, Johnson moved to Chicago in 1929. At the age of eight, while attending Doolittle Elementary School, he began work as a shoe shine boy. He then attended Wendell Phillips High School.
According to his biography, Johnson worked during the day as a busboy, and in the evenings he set pins in a bowling alley.
In 1944, Johnson dropped out of school and took a job as a production chemist for the Samuel B. Fuller cosmetics firm. He worked until 1954 when he left to start his own company, Johnson Products Company.
Johnson and his wife, Joan Henderson Johnson, started the company with a $500 loan. Unlike the popular African-American cosmetics companies at the time which usually targeted black women, Johnson targeted men with his Ultra Wave Hair Culture, which was a hair relaxer for men.
Johnson Products later launched a new hair straightener which could be used at home for women called Ultra Sheen in 1957. Ultra Sheen soon surpassed Ultra Wave in sales and fame.
At the time, “Afro” style hair was becoming popular and by the end of the 1960s, Johnson Products became the principal sponsor of the nationally syndicated dance TV show, “Soul Train“.
Afro Sheen was one of the best-known items sold by Johnson Products. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has an “Afro Sheen Blowout Kit” in its collection.
Johnson went on to create his second company in 1964. He founded “Independence Bank” in Chicago. The bank grew to become the largest black-owned bank in the United States in the 1980s. The bank was later sold in 1994.
In 1971, while Johnson Products became the first African American-owned company to be listed on the American Stock Exchange, Johnson also became the first African American to serve on the board of directors of Commonwealth Edison, a large utility corporation in northeastern Ohio.
Johnson resigned as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Johnson Products Company in 1989 after divorcing Joan, his wife of thirty-nine years. Johnson transferred 49.5 percent of the company over to his wife as a part of the divorce settlement while their son, Eric took over the reins.
Eric left the company in 1992 and the company was sold to IVAX for $61 million. Johnson, however, remarried Joan in 1995 and in 1998, Carson Products bought the company.
In 2004, Johnson Products Company was purchased by the Proctor and Gamble Corporation and again in March 2009, a consortium of African American investment firms bought the company.
Johnson got recognition and received various honors throughout his career. Amongst them are the Ebony Magazine Black Achievement Award in 1978, the public service award of the Harvard Club for the work of the George E. Johnson Foundation and the George E. Johnson Educational Fund in 1979.
He received the Horatio Alger Award in 1981 and he got the Babson Medal in 1983. The College of the Holy Cross honored Johnson with an honorary Doctor of Commercial Science degree in 1975 and he also received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Babson College in 1976.
As part of its profiles of the African-American Success video series, Block Starz Music Television released a documentary on George E. Johnson Sr. and the Johnson Products Company which was produced by Bayer Mack.
Johnson has been an active member of civic organizations, including the Chicago Urban League, the Lyric Opera, Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Operation PUSH.