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George Ellis Johnson Sr.
On this date in 1927, George Johnson Sr., a Black businessman, was born.
George Ellis Johnson Sr. was raised in a three-room sharecropper's shack in Richton, MS. His parents separated and he and his mother, Priscilla, moved to Chicago in 1929. He began working at the age of eight, shining shoes while attending Doolittle Elementary School, and then Wendell Phillips High School for three years before quitting to work full-time. Johnson worked during the day as a busboy and in the evenings he set pins in a bowling alley.
In 1944, he went to work as a production chemist for S. B. Fuller, the Chicago-based Fuller Products Company, a Black-owned cosmetics firm. Encouraged by a German-born chemist at S. B. Fuller, George Johnson parlayed a $500 loan into a multi-million dollar cosmetics business to found Johnson Products Company. Johnson Products became the first Black-owned company to be listed on the American Stock Exchange in 1971. That same year Johnson became the first African American to be elected a director on the board of Commonwealth Edison.
Johnson has dedicated himself to cultural and civic organizations, including Junior Achievement of Chicago, the Chicago Urban League, the Lyric Opera, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and Operation PUSH. "Ebony" magazine honored Johnson in 1978 with its American Black Achievement Award, and in 1979, Johnson received the public service award of the Harvard Club for the work of the George E. Johnson Foundation and the George E. Johnson Educational Fund.
Johnson received the Horatio Alger Award in 1981 and the Babson Medal in 1983. Johnson received an honorary Doctor of Commercial Science degree from College of the Holy Cross in 1975 and an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Babson College in 1976.
A short documentary on George E. Johnson Sr. and the Johnson Products Company was produced by The Czar of Black Hollywood director Bayer Mack and released by Block Starz Music Television as part of its Profiles of African-American Success video series. Johnson is also featured in the 2019 documentary, No Lye: An American Beauty Story, which chronicles the rise and decline of the Black-owned ethnic beauty industry.
Johnson was married to Joan Betty Henderson, whom he met while they were students at Phillips High School. Johnson and Henderson were married from May 1950 until her death in September 2019 at age 89. Together they had four children; Eric, Joan, John, and George E. Johnson Jr.
The Encyclopedia of African American Heritage
by Susan Altman
Copyright 1997, Facts on File, Inc. New York