November 1, 2023, was beautiful in Arkansas City, AR. It was a day to honor an icon of the black press, John H. Johnson, founder of Johnson Publishing Co., Negro Digest, Black World, Ebony, Ebony Jr., Tan and Jet magazines, Fashion Fair, and Fashion Fair Cosmetics.
This day was significant because three historical events happened. November 1, 1945, the first issue of Ebony Magazine was published. Johnson's mission was to let the world know what Black America was thinking, feeling, saying, and demanding. Ebony Magazine provided positive images of Black Americans not highlighted in other newspapers and magazines.
One could not go to a beauty shop and barbershop and not see an Ebony and Jet magazine on a table. I vividly remember seeing the magazine on the coffee table in my home and my parents being faithful subscribers.
On April 16, 2019, The State of Arkansas's 92nd General Assembly established November 1 as John H. Johnson Day. Every year in November, the City of Arkansas City hosts a celebration honoring Johnson in his hometown. I was in New Orleans for an event and learned about the Johnson celebration through social media. I rented a car and drove five hours to attend the annual event.
I arrived in Arkansas City, AR, a day before the celebration. I stopped by Johnson's childhood home. Johnson's home is called The John H. Johnson Museum, which was established in 2005 with the support of the Johnson family, the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff, and the City of Arkansas City. Johnson died less than three months after attending the dedication of the museum.
The replicated shotgun home has three rooms (two bedrooms and a kitchen). When Johnson's father, Leroy, was killed in an industrial accident, he and his mother, Gertrude Johnson Jenkins Williams, moved to Chicago in 1933.
Outside in the back of the house is a privy that was a part of Johnson's childhood.
Entering the home, is Johnson's father's bedroom. His room was also a gathering space for guest.
Next to the kitchen is Johnson's parent's room furnished with an iron bed, quilt, antique chest and closet.
The kitchen was once Johnson's bedroom. The furnishing in the kitchen is a wash pot, iron board, tin bathtub and potbelly stove.
An extra room was built as the Legacy Room with photos of Johnson, including his wife, Eunice Johnson, daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, and his mother, Gertrude Johnson Jenkins Williams (top center). There is also a photo of Johnson receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from former President Bill Clinton in 1996.
I arrived early at John H. Johnson Commemorative Plaza at the Delta Heritage Trail State Park, where the statue will be unveiled. The statue was covered in a beautiful black velvet cloak with gold chords.
The John H. Johnson Plaza is fabulous. The Walton Family Foundation and Arkansas State Parks made the park's funding possible. The plaza includes a walking path, an 80+ mile bike trail, a small amphitheater, and an outdoor exhibit of Johnson's timeline from his childhood in Arkansas to a successful businessman in Chicago. Johnson was the first Black named to the Forbes list of 400 wealthiest Americans in 1982.
The plaza is situated on the Mississippi River Levee. In 1927 was the Great Mississippi Flood that covered an estimated 6,600 square miles with 36 out of 75 Arkansas counties under water up to 30 feet deep. Johnson, who was nine years old, witnessed his city being swallowed by floodwaters. Johnson and his mother escaped by climbing to high ground. "The levee had broken, and the Mississippi River was on the rampage," says Johnson.
The program started after 10:00 a.m. with a speech from Dr. Calvin Johnson, Chairman of the 2023 John H. Johnson Day Planning.
Linda Johnson Rice, along with her daughter, Alexa Rice, was all smiles speaking to local residents, students, and people who traveled to honor her father's legacy. "I am so thrilled to be here, and I know that my father would be proud of this honor and to be able to have a statue erected in his honor and bringing everyone together," says Johnson Rice.
Johnson Rice's daughter, Alexa, read a special letter from former President Bill Clinton, a dear friend of the Johnson family, who was not able to attend. Clinton said that he is grateful that November 1 is a day to reflect on Johnson's many contributions in Arkansas and beyond, and we would all do well to be inspired by Johnson's remarkable life and to live by his example.
Johnson Rice was very excited to see the statue. She only saw the head of the statue. Johnson Rice said she trusted the sculptor Susan Holley Williams' vision as they went through numerous photographs and had many conversations. "You, like me, will see the statue together," says Johnson Rice.
Artist and sculptor Susan Holley Williams stepped to the podium beaming with joy. She was happy to acknowledge the attendance of her 96-year-old parents, 93-year-old art teacher, Ms. Joy Hudson, and her Link sisters.
Williams spoke about the connection between her and John H. Johnson. She was born and raised in Dumas, Arkansas, 20 miles from Johnson's hometown in the same county. She said it was not a coincidence, it was a God send. "Mr. Johnson and I have a connection that he would never have with any other sculptor," says Williams.
When Williams was commissioned to do the statue, she was excited but nervous. This was her largest project to date. Williams never created a statue of the status such as Johnson, a statue that is seven feet tall, and a statue of someone deceased, but she was up for the challenge. To prepare for the project, she spent a lot of time talking to Johnson Rice and read Johnson's book "Succeeding Against the Odds: The Autobiography of a Great American Businessman."
Williams said the statue will depict Johnson looking across at his birthplace with a pleasant smile, relaxed stance, and lowered arm holding an Ebony magazine. "Let us welcome home Mr. John H. Johnson, Arkansas's native son," says Williams.
FINALLY, the time of the unveiling of the statue!!!! Watch the video!!!!!
The John H. Johnson bronze statue is very impressive. I am so happy that the hands of a Black woman sculpted the statue. There needs to be more Black women to be commissioned to do public art. There are many talented artists, including Vinnie Bagwell, Debra Hand, Sonja Henderson, and the ancestors of Elizabeth Catlett, Augusta Savage, Selma Burke, and Edmonia Lewis.
I had the opportunity to speak to residents of Arkansas City who knew Johnson as Little Johnny.
I had the opportunity to interview Linda Rice Johnson. Watch the video!!!!!
After the unveiling, I attended the John H. Johnson Day Awards Ceremony moderated by Dr. Calvin Johnson. Lunch was provided by black owned businesses.
John H. Johnson Awards were given to individuals who have excelled in areas that embodied Johnson in media, journalism, business, and entrepreneurship.
U.S. Congressman (IL) Danny Davis, who was not in attendance, received the John H. Johnson Day Humanitarian Award. Congressman Davis, born in Parkdale, AR, was instrumental in introducing John H. Johnson Day on the House floor for national observance in 2021.
Adjacent to the white tent where the awards ceremony was commencing, I saw elementary school students drawing. They were given sketchbooks to draw a picture of Johnson's replica childhood home. The students are very talented.
Arkansas City, AR is a small-town jewel. It is an awesome place to learn about the history of a trailblazer who defied the odds to become an influential businessman, not only in Black history, but American history. To visit the John H. Johnson Cultural and Educational Museum, go here.
"Failure is a word I don't accept." - John Harold Johnson