Eunice Walker Johnson remembered

Published 12:06 am Wednesday, January 6, 2010

SELMA — People here paused to remember their own Tuesday after learning of the death of Eunice Walker Johnson, wife of the founder of Ebony magazine.

Mrs. Johnson, 93, died Sunday.

Juanda Maxwell, a board member of the YMCA in Selma, talked about her relationship with Mrs. Johnson, who pledged $1 million to the organization. The newest building is the Walker-Johnson Family Center.

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Mrs. Maxwell recalled when Mrs. Johnson, then in her late 80s, came to Selma for the building’s dedication. Mrs. Johnson suffered from Alzheimers disease, said Mrs. Maxwell.

Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually even the ability to carry out the simplest tasks.

Mrs. Maxwell said she held Mrs. Johnson’s hand and walked with her through the 43,000-square-foot complex. Mrs. Johnson read a speech that day. “Oh, she looked wonderful,” said Mrs. Maxwell, “but she could not remember.”

After the ribbon-cutting ceremony Mrs. Maxwell accompanied Mrs. Johnson and her daughter Linda Johnson Rice on a tour of Selma.

Mrs. Johnson grew up here. Her grandfather was one of the founders of Selma University. Her father, Dr. Nathaniel Walker, practiced medicine in Selma. Her mother, Ethel McAlpine Walker, was principal of the high school and taught art and education at Selma University.

On the tour Mrs. Johnson “wanted to see what was there when she was a child,” Mrs. Maxwell said.

They went to Mrs. Johnson’s childhood home. A family lived there and did not come to the door, but Mrs. Johnson insisted on knocking. She stood on the porch.

“She was just fascinated with her childhood home,” Mrs. Maxwell said.

Jet, one of the family’s publications, published a story about the visit in its next edition.

“It was tremendous PR for Selma,” Mrs. Maxwell said.

But Mrs. Johnson was more than the wife of John Johnson, the publisher. She was more than the secretary-treasurer of Johnson Publications.

To many African-American men and women she was the epitome of fashion. She and her husband started the Ebony Fashion Fair in the 1950s as a New Orleans hospital fundraiser. It was so successful they decided to take it on the road.

The Ebony Fashion Fair makes a stop in Selma each year, one of the smallest cities to offer the venue.

“That has been one of the greatest contributions that Eunice Johnson, a local girl, brought fashion here to her home town,” said Nancy Sewell, who has served as chair of the project for her sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha Inc.

Mrs. Sewell pointed out most African-Americans look forward to seeing the fashion show each year and feel the reach of New York or Paris here in the Black Belt area of Alabama.

“For more than 30 years we’ve had a packed audience to see the latest in fashion for men and women,” said Mrs. Sewell. “To me it’s like going to Paris or going to Hollywood.”

The fashion show will arrive in Selma March 5 this year.

Mrs. Johnson is survived by her daughter and a granddaughter. Funeral services will be private.