Eunice Walker Johnson was indeed the wife of the late Johnson Publications founder John H. Johnson, but she was a trailblazer in her own right.
Mrs. Johnson was born on April 4, 1916 in Selma, Alabama to Dr. Nathaniel D. Walker and Ethel McAlpine Walker, an educator. She graduated from Talladega College, where she majored in sociology and minored in art, and then went on to earn a master's degree in social work from Loyola University in Chicago. Eunice Walker's prestigious background was not lost on her future husband, who noted in his 1989 autobiography, Succeeding Against the Odds: The Autobiography of a Great American Businessman,"I was not, to put it mildly, one of the great catches of 1940." He went on to say:
People used to tell Eunice that she was wasting her time keeping company with a young man of doubtful background who was not among the young Black professionals who were most likely to succeed." What impressed me about Eunice in comparison with the other young women I had known is that our relationship was not just a romantic fling - it was also a meeting of the minds on what was going on in the world. She was a good listener, sympathetic to my ambitions. She made me feel that maybe I would be somebody one day.
The Johnsons married in 1941 and the next year, Negro Digest, the first Johnson Publication was born. Ebony, which received it's name from Mrs. Johnson, arrived in 1945 and Jet came along in 1951. When John H. Johnson died in 2005, I noted in my tribute to him that the closest I would have come to a career in magazine
publishing in the 1950s or 1960s
would have been at 820 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago or 1290 6th Avenue
- in the New York offices of the Johnson Publishing Company. Black
models and fashion designers who started in that generation would owe a
similar debt to Mrs. Johnson.
Ebony Fashion Fair began in 1957 as a charitable fashion show with four models doing shows in six cities. The traveling fashion show would help launch the careers of models like Pat Cleveland and go on to raise more that $50 million dollars for various charities around the country.
In 1973, Mrs. Johnson helped create Fashion Fair Cosmetics after noticing that the Ebony Fashion Fair models had to take the time to mix their own makeup for the shows.
Yves Saint Laurent was one of the first designers to allow his fashions to be used in the pioneering Ebony Fashion Fair shows, but many others had to be convinced. Mrs. Johnson told The New York Times in 2001,“We were the ones who convinced Valentino to use black models in his shows back in the ’60s. I was in Paris, and I told him: ‘If you can’t find any black models, we’ll get some for you. And if you can’t use them, we’re not going to buy from you anymore.’ That was before he was famous.”
Andre Leon Talley, Vogue's Editor-at-Large, traveled with Mrs. Johnson to Paris and Milan to help her select the designs that were featured in Ebony Fashion Fair shows, paid tribute to her on NPR's All Things Considered. He remembered Mrs. Johnson as "an extraordinary, loving lady," and said that "Mrs. Johnson wasn't above having a Picasso in her living room but going straight into her kitchen, which was of course state-of-the-art, and making a wonderful pound cake."
White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers, a very good friend of Mrs. Johnson's daughter Linda Johnson Rice, told the Chicago Sun-Times: "Here's a black woman in the '50s, taking her children to [fine restaurants], or going to the shows overseas. One of the lessons I learned from her is confidence." Ms. Rogers is scheduled to be on-hand today at a previously planned tribute to Mrs. Johnson at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, where she will present a proclamation from President Obama.
Eunice Walker Johnson (April 4, 1916 - January 3, 2010) Includes an article and a wonderful photo slideshow of Mrs. Johnson through the years. [Ebonyjet Arts & Culture]
A Eunice Johnson Appreciation: Around the World With Ebony Fashion Fair: Audrey Smaltz, a former Fashion Fair Commentator who was once Mrs. Johnson's personal assistant recalls working for and traveling with Mrs. Johnson. [The Root]
A Tribute to Eunice Johnson: Designer turned blogger Eric Gaskins recounts how Mrs. Johnson directly impacted his business as a designer. [The Emperor's Old Clothes]In Memoriam: 'Ebony' Matriarch Eunice W. Johnson (with Andre Leon Talley) [NPR's All Things Considered]