In The Steps of Esteban: Tucson's African American Heritage

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Blanche Johnson

Summary of a 1991 oral history by A. Hill; 1996

Blanche Johnson was born August 9, 1912 in Wilmot, Arkansas to James and Susie Mae Jackson Williams. The family soon moved to Little Rock, Arkansas. Blanche attended Philander Smith College where she studied Home Economics for two terms. While at the college, she determined that her goal was to become a beautician, and she moved to Memphis, Tennessee, to live with her brother and attend beauty school.

In 1936 her sister, Julia, urged Blanche to moved to Tucson. Julia was doing graduate work at the University of Arizona at that time. In 1938 Blanche opened the Blanchette Beauty Shop at 305 W. Sixth Street. It was the first African-American beauty salon in Tucson. That same year she married Hosea E. Johnson. They raised a family of 3 children: Purcell E. Johnson, Donald J. Johnson, and Nona Sue Beidleman.

The Blanchette Beauty Shop was a successful business until its closing in 1963. Blanche also helped open and run the Glamour Girls Beauty School in the late 1950's. When she closed her beauty shop, Blanche decided to pursue a second career. In 1963 she was sworn in as a deputy with the Pima County Sheriff's department. She retired in 1977 after fourteen years of service with the department.

Blanche Johnson has made Tucson a better place to live through her activities as a successful African-American businesswoman, law enforcement officer, and neighborhood leader.

Summary of an Interview with Blanche Johnson; 1988
by Aprelle Hill

Mrs. Blanche Naomi Johnson was interviewed in her home on April 17, 1991. In 1990 she was interviewed by Amy Knowles concerning the history of Prince Chapel A.M.E. Church (Lawson, et al. 1990). A first impression of Mrs. Johnson yields the vision of a well groomed woman. She spoke in a strong and clear voice of vivid memories of events in her full lifetime. At every turn in her home are photographs and memorabilia marking the milestones of Mrs. Johnson's lifelong accomplishments. The generous hospitality shown to me by both Mr. and Mrs. Johnson was surpassed only by her eagerness to share her life story.

Mrs. Johnson was born August 9, 1912, to James and Susie Mae (Jackson) Williams in the small town of Wilmot, Arkansas. At an early age, her family moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, where Mrs. Johnson graduated from Dunbar High School.

As a soloist in the Dunbar High School Glee Club, she won a music scholarship to Philander Smith College where her older sister, Julia, was a student. After completing two terms of study in the Home Economics Department, she decided to pursue a different career. Mrs. Johnson stated, "...I wanted to go to beauty school." She moved to Memphis, Tennessee, to live with her brother and attend beauty school.

Mrs. Johnson was encouraged by her sister, Julia, who was doing graduate work at the University of Arizona, to move to Tucson. "But, I told her I did not want to leave Memphis, so she insisted." Because the fare had been paid, she felt she could not refuse and moved to Tucson, Arizona, in 1936. Traveling by train, she was required to sit in a segregated section. Her first impression of Tucson was, "I could see nothing but desert as I approached Arizona ... I began to cry..."

Mrs. Johnson decided to continue with cosmetology and began to pursue proper training. Weaver Beauty College, the only beauty school in Tucson, turned her away because the quota of two Black students, a limit imposed by the school, had been filled. Determined to succeed, Mrs. Johnson relocated to Los Angeles, California, where she attended Ruth's Beauty College. Passing the State Board of Cosmetology examination in San Francisco, she decided to return to Arizona to open the first Black beauty salon in Tucson.

While studying in Los Angeles, Blanche Williams met Hosea E. Johnson, who asked her hand in marriage. Mr. Johnson gave his fiancee one hundred dollars for the purchase of a wedding ring. She said, "I told him I would take that one hundred dollars and apply it towards establishing my beauty shop." With this initial investment, help from Mr. Johnson's uncle, and contributions from relatives her dreams were rapidly materializing.

Blanche Williams returned to Tucson in the summer of 1938 where she married on September 17, 1938. She had three children, Purcell E. Johnson, Donald J. Johnson, and Nona Sue Beidleman.

Blanchette Beauty Shop opened at 305 W. Sixth Street in 1939. The beauty shop ran successfully until its closing in 1963. New requirements were implemented by the State Board of Cosmetology which led Mrs. Johnson to conclude, "...it would be quite expensive to enlarge and go into a bigger field..." However, her cosmetology career did not end here.

A few years before Blanchette's was closed, Carol Carlin collaborated with Mrs. Johnson to open and manage a new business, Glamour Girls Beauty School. It opened January 5, 1958, on Fourth Avenue to anyone who applied, regardless of race. The school operated for approximately two years.

A friend, May Ward, who worked for the Pima County Sheriffs Department encouraged Mrs. Johnson to apply with the department. She was sworn in as a deputy by Sheriff Walden Burr in 1963. Her duties centered around women's corrections. She did not find her employment with the department to be too discriminatory. She retired in 1977 after fourteen years of service with the department.

Since retiring, Mrs. Johnson has been involved with numerous civic and religious organizations. She is a member and past regional president of the National Association of Colored Women. For over fifty years, she has been a member of the Women's Progress Civic Club and the Eureka Club, one of the oldest church clubs in Tucson. She is an active participant with Kino Parkway Neighborhood Club, the YWCA, and the Tucson Urban League. She has been a member of Prince Chapel A.M.E. Church for over fifty years and is a steward, class leader, and sings in the choir. Mrs. Johnson is a staunch Democrat who has served on the Governor's Commission of Arizona's Involvement since 1965.

Remembering the civil rights era, she recalled, "The Black people didn't have any choice ... of going into business or anything for themselves..." She continued, "Back at that time, there wasn't anything that the Black man could do here but work for somebody..." As a result of the civil rights movement, African Americans were able to find work and open businesses. Compared to the South, she believed, "it was easier out here" (for Blacks in the Southwest).

Julia Williams Bush has been the greatest influence in Mrs. Johnson's life. Her sister's efforts to keep the family close resulted in Mrs. Johnson gracing Tucson with her effervescent presence. Mrs. Johnson's contributions to the African American community of Tucson warrant much admiration. The persistence and determination which led to the realization of the dream of owning a beauty business created career opportunities for all races. This, coupled with her success as a deputy, teaches us a valuable lesson of perseverance and conviction. Mrs. Blanche Johnson is truly a pillar of the African American community. I thank her for the experience of her inspirational story.

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