Welcome to the weekend POU!
We finish up our week celebrating the crowning glories of our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers with the story of the incredible Chicago milliner Eloise Johnson. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a picture of this feisty incredible lady, but of course plenty of other pics to share of the “Crowns.”
Eloise Johnson ran a hat boutique on East 47th Street in Chicago for more than 60 years, staying on long after other businesses shuttered around her, all in an attempt to showcase the personalities of the women she served.
In her heyday, Mrs. Johnson, affectionately known as “Lovie,” sold hats to many famous women, including Pearl Bailey, Lena Horne and Eleanor Roosevelt. She continued to own and manage her shop, Eloise’s Millinery Boutique, until 1989, when her health began to fail.
In 1948, the Chicago Defender devoted half a page to Miss Eloise, under the headline “Texas Girl Achieves Business Success in Chicago, Wins Fame as Hat Stylist.”
“An attractive young woman from Texas came to Chicago in 1930 and injected the hub of the nation with a new faith in the business of the Negro woman,” the article began.
Ald. Dorothy Tillman, long famous for her wide array of hats, was one of her many loyal clients. “If you were going to wear a hat, you had to get a hat from Eloise,” Tillman said. “My grandmother always told me every well-dressed lady always wore a hat, and Eloise kind of reminded me of my grandmother.”
East 47th Street was a thriving area in the early days of Mrs. Johnson’s business. It’s now full of vacant lots and boarded windows, but she never considered leaving, and her presence inspired many other African-American women, Tillman said.
“She was one of our heroes and a big part of our history,” she said. “Eloise had class. She had pride in her race . . . and she was just a loving person.”
Mrs. Johnson went into the hat business after graduating from Prairie View College in Texas with a degree in home economics. She came to Chicago in 1930 and found a job in a hat store. After the owner left, she decided to run the store herself.
For many years, she made her own hats, until her eyesight dimmed and she began ordering hats from elsewhere. She said in a Tribune interview several years ago that she missed the days when women sat down in front of her big round mirror while she styled a hat for them.
“That was my first love,” she said, “creating styling to make everybody look themselves.”
Times were often hard for a black businesswoman, harder in a different way when times supposedly got better.
“Baby, let me tell you the worst thing ever happened to us,” she said. “We got integrated. We lost all interest in what we was doing for ourselves and we thought it was great to go and be with you. People migrated to shop downtown because we’d been denied going downtown. The people began to drift because they could go sit next to you at dinner. I have had my own people come in here and say, `See the hat I bought at Marshall Field’s?’ “
She said this with enough steel in her eyes and voice to carve a roast.
Married for 20 years, Miss Eloise has been widowed for 20. “I haven’t had time for marriage,” she said, noting her many civic endeavors. “And you know, men don’t like busy women.”
“She kept telling me over the years, `Can’t you find some young person who will take over this business so I can retire?’ ” recalled Consuelo Miller Pope, president of the Chicago Cosmopolitan Chamber of Commerce, an African-American women’s business group. “But I could never make her understand that she was that business, that no matter how far away her customers might move, if they wanted a hat they would always come back to Eloise to get one.”
Several years ago, the Cosmopolitan Chamber of Commerce honored Mrs. Johnson for her commitment to the 47th Street area and the organization now honors other local businesses that remain in struggling communities with the Eloise Johnson award.
“She was a woman who made a difference,” Pope said. Mrs. Johnson died March 8, 1998 in Columbia Michael Reese Hospital and Medical Center. She was coy about her age, but family members said they believe she was 89.