"I was drawn to this story by the iconic status of the Johnson Products Company and its products like Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen," says documentary producer Bayer Mack, founder and CEO of Block Starz Music Television. "The Johnsons were the first family of black hair, and they revolutionized the marketplace."
The Johnson Products Company also became well known because they were the exclusive sponsor of the hit television show, Soul Train, when the television show was syndicated nationally.
George E. Johnson
George E. Johnson (1927- ) was born in Richton, Mississippi. His mother split from her husband shortly after George's birth, taking young George with her to Chicago. George attended school but by age 8, he was working afternoons as a shoe shine boy. In high school, he dropped out to work full-time.
Johnson worked at many jobs in his teens, but he had the good fortune to spend several years working for black entrepreneur, Samuel B. Fuller, who built a successful cosmetics company. It was at Fuller's lab where Johnson invented his first product, Ultra Wave, a hair relaxer for men.
With Fuller's blessing, Johnson soon went on his own, and his company became known for making Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen and many other beauty products for African Americans. In 1971, Johnson Products was the first African American-owned corporation listed on the American Stock Exchange.
Bayer Mack and co-producer Frances Presley Rice tell Johnson's story well in another of their video documentary shorts.
The Story Behind the Johnson Company Success
In the documentary on Johnson Products, producer Bayer Mack points out that there was one story they couldn't fully explore in their short video: The story of Samuel B. Fuller, George Johnson's invaluable mentor.
Mack shared with me Fuller's story.
Samuel Fuller (1905-1988) was born to a sharecropping family in Monroe, Louisiana. In 6th grade, Fuller had to drop out of school to help the family; Fuller began selling products door-to-door. When he was 15, the family moved to Memphis. His mother died two years later, and Samuel Fuller left for Chicago on his own. (Fuller is no relation to Alfred Fuller, founder of the Fuller Brush Company.)
Remembering his success in Louisiana with door-to-door selling, Fuller purchased a load of soap from a company called Boyer International Laboratories and began selling the soap door-to-door in both black and white neighborhoods. (Bayer Mack shared with me an article from the Journal of Social History, spring 1998, that points out that black companies were generally forced to sell door-to-door. There were no well-developed retail stores in black communities, and if a man like Fuller had approached white retail stores looking for shelf space, he almost certainly would have been turned away.)
With his soap and some cosmetics made by Boyer, Fuller prospered. Of course, the key to profitability is producing your own products. Fuller soon hired a chemist so he could do so. In 1947, Boyer International hit on hard times, and Fuller absorbed the company to save them for bankruptcy.
By the late 1950s, Fuller Products had $18 million in sales and a sales force of five thousand (one-third of them white). Fuller was thought to be the richest African American in the country at that time.
He went on to purchase several newspapers, including the Courier chain that served black audiences in Chicago, New York, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. He also owned the South Center Department Store and Regal Theater in Chicago.
Fuller became the first African American inducted into the National Association of Manufacturers. He supported civil rights and was active with the NAACP in the 1960s. But based on a speech he gave, his company suffered a backlash from militant activists who felt he should be taking stronger stands against discriminatory practices in the U.S.
Those who fought against him didn't know that one of his greatest pleasures was mentoring others. He may not have been militant in his approach to righting wrongs, but Fuller did all he could to help other black business people along.
Within his own company, Fuller was known for running motivational training sessions for all of his sales people. If a particular salesperson was having difficulty, Fuller--even in his later years--went out with the sales agent to figure out how to help him along. He also directly mentored many black leaders who went on to contribute to the country.
George E. Johnson was among them. In his early 20s Johnson had the good fortune to be employed by Samuel Fuller. When Johnson came up with the idea for a hair relaxer for men, Johnson had Fuller's blessing to use the Fuller lab to make his first product, Ultra Wave.
Johnson soon borrowed money and started his own company, but when his laboratory burned to the ground, his old mentor, S.B. Fuller, made space for Johnson and his staff to use Fuller labs until Johnson Products could operate on their own again.
S.B. Fuller also mentored another Johnson: John H. Johnson who went on to publish Ebony and Jet Magazine. Mary Ellen Strong, another publisher, came under his wing, and she started publications in Milwaukee and Chicago.
Another mentee, Richard McGuire owned Seaway Furniture Stores Inc, and he placed signs in his stores saying: "SB Fuller started this firm." (New Pittsburgh Courier, 9-12-1987)
Reversals and Successes
While Fuller suffered plenty of business reversals as well as successes, a reporter from the Pittsburgh Courier asked him if he had any regrets: "Listen, you know I only have a sixth grade education, and knowledge was something I always respected," said Fuller. "I learned you have to make your own wisdom. I don't have anything to be sorry about. I started this business because I wanted to prove something to myself. I have had that chance." (Courier, 9-12-1987)
Fuller died in 1988 at the age of 83.
To learn about the success of George E. Johnson of Johnson Products, watch the 4-minute Block Starz video here.
Bayer Mack has produced feature length documentaries on stories such as that of early black director Oscar Micheaux and Daddy King about Martin Luther King's father, Block Starz also produces short videos like Gamble & Huff: The Sound of Philadelphia, Miss Black America, and Alpha Kappa Alpha: A Legacy of Sisterhood and Service.
To read more stories of African American leaders, visit www.americacomesalive.com Eunice Johnson, who changed the world of fashion by starting the Ebony Fashion Fair, or James Reese Europe who popularized jazz and ragtime.
To receive more success stories during February and Black History Month, write firstname.lastname@example.org and put Profiles in the subject line.