First Black-Owned Company to Go Public on the Stock Market

George Johnson, founder of Johnson Products

Johnson Products, which manufactured a popular line of hair care and cosmetic products, was the first company owned by African American entrepreneurs to be listed on the American Stock Exchange. Founded in 1954 by husband and wife team, George and Joan Johnson, the company officially went public in 1971.
George started the company with a $250 business loan that he obtained by reportedly telling a small lie. Apparently, he was denied the first time he applied for loan because the bankers thought his idea was ridiculous. So, he went to another branch of the same loan company and told them that he wanted to take his wife to California on vacation. The loan was approved.

During that time, many major corporations underestimated the buying power of Black consumers. The Johnsons, however, made a fortune with hair care products that were specifically designed for and targeted to Black customers. Their first product was called Ultra Wave™. Later, they developed and released the popular Afro Sheen™ hair spray, which especially became popular when African Americans stopped straightening their hair and began to embraced the infamous Afro hair style.

Over many decades, the company weathered changes in hairstyles and stiff competition from larger companies like Revlon and Avon that later tried to capitalize on Black hairstyles. Johnson Products always stood out though because they were a devoted sponsor of the popular Soul Train TV show hosted by Don Cornelius, and the company also supported various philanthropic efforts that benefited urban communities.

As they got older, George and Joan passed the company on to their son, Eric, who served as CEO of the company until he sold it in 1993 to the Ivax Corporation, which already had an existing line of skin care products that targeted Black customers. The deal, however, was openly criticized by many because the sale was made to a company that was not Black-owned.