John H. Johnson statue to be unveiled in Arkansas City, Arkansas, where he was born.
The fifth John H. Johnson Day, the state-recognized observance celebrating the EBONY founder will unveil the first and only statue of the publishing pioneer on November 1, 2023. Hosted by the Friends of John H. Johnson Museum, the statue is being erected in Mr. Johnson’s birth city.
Commissioned by the Arkansas State Parks Department, Mr. Johnson's statue will sit at the head of the Arkansas State Parks Delta Heritage Trail in Arkansas City.
“We worked with legislators to get the bill passed, which allows for official celebration and observance of Mr. Johnson in Arkansas,” says museum curator Angela Courtney, who is orchestrating the day's activities.
Linda Johnson Rice, the daughter of Johnson and his wife Eunice, who was also instrumental in establishing EBONY’s legacy, will be in attendance. “She’ll talk about what all this means to her father's legacy.”
Susan Holley Williams sculpted the John H. Johnson statue. She tells EBONY, ”Throughout this project, I felt like a mother awaiting a birth. After nine months of digging through a vat of clay, constructing and deconstructing, I finally found John H. Johnson. I thanked God and returned him to his hometown.”
With sponsorship from Johnson Rice and the Arkansas Diagnostic Center of Dr. Alonso Williams and his wife Susan, the sculptor, here’s more to know about this upcoming historic event celebrating an iconic man.
EBONY: What is the history behind John H. Johnson Day?
Angela Courtney: The Arkansas State Parks contacted the Friends of John H. Johnson Museum. They had received funding from the Walton Family Foundation and wanted to partner with us on something in his honor, but they didn’t know what that project could look like. They asked us, and we said we would love to have a statue of Mr. Johnson.
What will happen on the day of the event?
US Congressman Danny Davis is our special guest for the unveiling. While he represents Chicago, he's from Arkansas. In 2021, we asked him to introduce John H. Johnson Day on the House floor for national observance. He’s receiving our John H. Johnson Day Humanitarian Award, and we have awards in media and journalism and business and entrepreneurship. Those are the three areas that embodied Mr. Johnson. We’ll also feature music and activities focused around the period of Mr. Johnson's childhood: jug band music using washboards, spoons and instruments of the time, presented by Arkansas State University Mid-South. In addition, students from Little Rock, Arkansas' Mabelvale Middle School will perform. We’ll have celebrity chef Jarita Frazier-King, who specializes in soul food and food from the African diaspora, preparing some of the dishes from Mr. Johnson’s era.
What’s the significance of having John H. Johnson Day on November 1?
Mr. Johnson always said November was his lucky month. He started Johnson Publishing Company and launched EBONY magazine on that date. When we started the observance, I said,” Lord, let it be on November 1.” And that’s the date legislators passed the bill.
How does having this sculpture in the city where Mr. Johnson was born feel?
He loved Arkansas. If you read his book Succeeding Against the Odds: The Autobiography of a Great American Businessman, every other chapter, if not every chapter, he mentions Arkansas. As a child, he had to live on a mountain for six weeks due to a flood. It was a time when he saw how people could come together and work for the common good. That experience taught him a lot. In his book, he talks about never leaving a room without having an actual sale or deal. His secret? To convince people why it's in their best interest to help us.
How long has the John H. Johnson Museum been open?
Mr Johnson returned home to Arkansas for the museum's opening in 2004. Next year will be our 20th anniversary. Honoring and recognizing someone like Mr. Johnson, who made so many contributions not only to Black history but to American history, we're excited to have people from all over the country come and be a part of our celebration, which is free to the public.
You’ve written a book about Mr. Johnson’s childhood.
Most people know about Mr. Johnson from his years in Chicago. If you Google him, most of the stories pick up when he was there in high school. The book is called Johnny Was His Name. That’s the name he used until high school when a teacher recommended that he drop the “ny.” He became “John H.” We follow 9-year-old Johnny, who lived on the Arkansas levee for six weeks during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. We want the book in schools across the U.S. so kids can learn about him. I'm also targeting people whose grandparents and great-grandparents may know about EBONY and Jet, that 20- and 30-year-old audience that may not know about Mr. Johnson. The book, the museum, John H. Johnson Day and the sculpture are all an extension of his legacy and the curation of his amazing life story.