ARKANSAS CITY — Arkansas State Parks held a groundbreaking ceremony on Tuesday at the future site of John H. Johnson Park.
Held at Delta Heritage Trail State Park, the ceremony took place on John H. Johnson Day.
Johnson, born in Arkansas City in 1918, is known for founding Johnson Publishing Company in Chicago in 1942. The company published the influential black magazines Ebony and Jet.
Johnson became the first black person on the Forbes 400 list in 1982. In 1996, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from fellow Arkansan President Bill Clinton. He died in 2005.
John H. Johnson Day was declared by the Arkansas Legislature in 2019 after calls from the John H. Johnson Museum and Educational Center in Arkansas City.
Among those who took part in the groundbreaking ceremony in Johnson’s hometown were Arkansas Mayor Rick Hales; Becca Hazlewood, senior program officer for the Walton Family Foundation; Robert S. Moore Jr., chairman of the Arkansas State Highway Commission and a native of Arkansas City; and Jordan Thomas, design services manager for Arkansas State Parks Planning and Management.
Johnson Park, which will include an amphitheater, exhibits and a statue of Johnson, will serve as the southern terminus of the 84.5-mile Delta Heritage Trail under development.
Moore, a former member of the Arkansas Legislative Assembly, had worked since the 1990s to honor Johnson’s memory in their hometown. He called the grand opening “a great day of opportunity” for the southeastern Arkansas town of about 369 people.
“We’ve worked diligently over the past two decades to get where we are,” Moore said.
Part of the funding for the Johnson Park and Trail, which will join the city’s John H. Johnson Museum opened in 2004, comes from the Walton Family Foundation.
“I think it’s important to celebrate the rich history and successful entrepreneurs everywhere, certainly those small towns that aren’t often as recognized as they could and should be,” Hazlewood said. “And there’s a lot to celebrate in terms of [Johnson’s] life and what he has done for the black community and black culture.”
Johnson Day, which included a lecture on the history of Jet magazine, as well as a fashion show and musical performances, was celebrated by people from “all walks of life”, said Angela Courtney, the museum’s volunteer curator. .
“People are here from all over the state, from Mississippi actually too, so it’s wonderful to have this opportunity to be in this space where it all started in 1918,” Courtney said. “Just in the last five years, that’s when I got involved because it’s just amazing to tell his story and learn from what he’s done. He’s been a pioneer and a pioneer. And so it was a great opportunity for me to share with the kids in the community, because so many kids don’t know about Mr. Johnson and the work that he did. Maybe their grandparents know it, but young people don’t.
In its September 15, 1955 issue, Jet magazine published photos of the mutilated body of Chicago teenager Emmitt Till after he was kidnapped and murdered. Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted on a public open-casket funeral to shed light on the racial violence being perpetrated in the South.
Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr., a cousin of Till and the last living witness to his abduction, was one of the speakers at Tuesday’s event, which focused in part on Jet’s 70th birthday.
Moore also gave a speech. He remembers first meeting Johnson in 1995 to discuss a way to honor him in his hometown. This eventually led to the opening of the museum.
“Since I met him and dealt with him, I think what he would say is, ‘OK, you’re going to honor my heritage in this small town. You are going to build a park that will attract people to my hometown where I grew up. What are you going to do with it? ‘” Moore said. “It’s an opportunity. … It’s going to grow the economy here. It’s going to make a difference.”
The park is expected to be completed in the summer of 2023.