Mrs. Eunice Johnson, producer and director of the Ebony Fashion Fair and secretary-treasurer of Johnson Publishing Company, died of renal failure at her home in Chicago. She was 93. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art will honor her work on January 11 as a philanthropist and fashion icon. The tribute, planned some time ago, was several months in the making.
“Mrs. Johnson elevated the image of Black women being fashion conscious, fashion forward and affluent,” said Kenneth Owen, assistant producer of Ebony Fashion Fair, who was handpicked by the fashion pioneer 26 years ago to work alongside her.
Born on April 4, 1916 in Selma, Ala., Mrs. Johnson came from a prestigious family. Her sophistication and fashion sense wasn’t bought. She was born with it. Mrs. Johnson’s father, Dr. Nathaniel D. Walker, was a doctor who practiced medicine for five decades, while her mother, Ethel McAlpine Walker, taught education and art at Selma University. The institution was founded by Dr. William H. McAlpine, her maternal grandfather, who also founded the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. and was close friends with Booker T. Washington.
Education was important in the Johnson household. She graduated from Talladega College with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a minor in art. A master’s degree was later earned in social work from Loyola University in Chicago.
Mrs. Johnson was working as a social worker when she quit her job to support her husband John’s vision of starting a magazine that focused on Black life. When he was having trouble trying to find a name for a new magazine in 1945, he asked her for guidance since she had a degree in art. She chose Ebony because it means “fine black African wood.” The magazine would go on to define generations.