When I learned that Joan Johnson had died a few days ago at 89, I felt an instant pang.
Johnson was the co-founder of Johnson Products, which in 1971 became the first black-owned company listed on the American Stock Exchange. She was from the South Side of Chicago, where I spent half of my childhood. (She was married to my mother-in-law’s first cousin.) And it was her company that, among other staples of black grooming products, gave us Ultra Sheen.
I’m not sure anything gets blacker than this, and if I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’.
Recently, the news has been full of reports of white teachers, counselors and coaches aggressively policing black hair. My thinking is that if you don’t know that Ultra Sheen is still just $1.21 in grocery stores, then you have no business opening your mouth.
Truth be told, I’ve had a hard time finding those small jars of hair grease for several years. Consolidation in the industry and the move of white-owned firms into the black market led to Johnson Products being sold several times, starting in 1993. It was eventually acquired by Procter & Gamble and later sold to a group of black investment firms. When I’d luck out and spot it on the shelves of some beauty supply store, I’d hoard two or three jars out of both nostalgia and need.
It was the product itself, the not-too-heavy blue grease (or green if you needed the extra dry formula) that had one job — to manage (lay down, wave up, detangle and shine) black hair — it always did what it was supposed to do. It became baked into the daily grooming rituals of my childhood in a way that made it a totem for an era. A pre-gentrification, get-your-education, no-frills time when black people needed neatness, at a minimum, at an accessible price point. It was a tool, rather than a status product, which distinguished it from the fancier, more self-important black hair care lines that followed — especially when white companies moved into the lucrative black hair care market they’d long ignored.
Long before hair tutorials on YouTube, I raised my daughters using Ultra Sheen and a spray bottle of water to provide the foundation for every hairstyle known to black girlhood. I once finished off my own $200 haircut and color with a palm full of Ultra Sheen my stylist jokingly called “European de frissant.”
George “Pete” Johnson II, my husband’s second cousin, grew up hearing the story of how his father, a production chemist for black-owned soap and cosmetics manufacturer Fuller Products, couldn’t get a business loan. But he got a $250 vacation loan that he and his wife, Joan, used to help start Johnson Products in 1954. They created, packaged and distributed hair care products from their basement before opening a production plant on the South Side in the mid-1960s that employed around 500 people at its height. According to Black Enterprise magazine, the company controlled roughly a third of the black hair care market by the late 1970s.
“My mom was the backbone in all of this,” Pete Johnson said. “She was the woman that, along with my father, envisioned the company.”
She was always good with money and initially did all the accounting and acted as the company’s de facto comptroller. She gave to local causes even before they had much to give. She later became a trustee at Spelman College. “My mom really felt the need to empower not only us as a culture, but black women,” Johnson says. We needed an identity “of us being just as elegant, just as gracious and beautiful as anybody else.”
It’s an ethos that showed up in the stylish clothes, hair and makeup she wore every time she walked out of her front door. When you left home, “you better be completely groomed, clean and smelling good,” said Pete Johnson. She always told us to strive for perfection “and it starts with how you look, how you present yourself.”
It was a way she thought black people could change self-perceptions, and white perceptions of the race, that much of the culture has since moved past but was considered gospel in its day.
Johnson also believed that graciousness translated into how you treated people. “I saw that firsthand as a little boy,” said Pete Johnson. “We had a place in Endeavor, Wisconsin [a small town near the Wisconsin Dells] and we’d get some of the Native Americans coming to our house asking for food.” When his two older brothers ran around behind them making mock Indian noises, “My mom snatched them boys up so quick,” Pete Johnson recalled. “She didn’t play that. You had to respect everybody.”
The company’s product line also included other hair care and grooming products. Johnson Products sponsored the syndicated dance program, Soul Train, and a huge swath of black America will remember the line, “makers of Ultra Sheen, Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen Cosmetics,” voiced by Soul Train host Don Cornelius, for the rest of our lives.
In a Facebook post, educator Cassandra Smith of Prince George’s County, Maryland, remembered how the yellow creme satin press specifically enabled her Sunday church press and curls. Karen Parker, a Washington event curator and producer, calls both the blue and green Ultra Sheen part of hair washing day in her Afro-Caribbean childhood, and the product of choice for greasing her grandmother’s scalp.
And of course Afro Sheen made Afros shine.
“I also remember the joy of putting the sheen on your Afro,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, who is likely the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution to have ever voiced that particular recollection. He met Joan and George Johnson when he was president of the Chicago Historical Society, and they talked about the power of those weekly Soul Train plugs. “In a way, the Johnsons captured the tenor of the time and used that desire to express one’s blackness as a key to their marketing strategy,” he said. “Whenever I think about the commercials, I smile and recall a time when we were all discovering our blackness.”
Beginning in the late 1970s, the models on the boxes of Johnson Products’ Gentle Treatment relaxers became their own form of black celebrity. (I once worked with a reporter who’d won the vaunted Johnson Products Gentle Treatment model search.) Before the natural hair care revolution of the last decade helped us move beyond the white gaze, they represented an aspirational version of black respectability that saw black womanhood as beautiful and cultured in a way that corresponded with hair that should always be worn appropriately straight.
Joan Johnson wanted to “lift us up” as a people, Pete Johnson said. The message from white culture, “I believe, back then, was that we were less than, but we weren’t.”
Step one in proving that was looking good. It’s something Joan Johnson believed black people could accomplish, by any product necessary.