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Ernest Parnell Joshua (1928–2005)

Ernest Parnell Joshua Sr. was an entrepreneur and founder of J. M. Products, Incorporated, which grew to become the largest black-owned company in Arkansas. The multimillion-dollar manufacturer of ethnic haircare products was one of the largest in the country. Joshua was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 1994.

Ernest P. Joshua was born on November 3, 1928, in northern Pulaski County. He was the son of Morris “Mars” Joshua and Mable Byrd Joshua. His mother died during his early teen years, and he was raised by his father.

He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1946 at Jefferson Barracks in Missouri and was discharged in 1949. He married Thelma Lee Ready, a childhood acquaintance, that same year. He was later called back into the army and served from 1953 to 1956, spending time in Korea. Ernest and Thelma Joshua had four children: Ernest Jr., Sandra, Michael, and Christopher.

Joshua received a business degree from Cortez Peters Business College of Chicago, Illinois, and took chemistry courses at the University of Chicago so that he could learn to mix chemicals to make his own hair products. He later received an honorary doctorate from Shorter College in North Little Rock (Pulaski County).

Joshua spent thirty years in Chicago learning the haircare industry. He worked miscellaneous jobs in his early days, including being a waiter, pest exterminator, and taxi and bus driver. While driving a taxi, he met fellow Arkansan John H. Johnson, publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines. He also met George Johnson, founder of Johnson Products, which manufactured the Ultra Sheen haircare line, and Fred Luster, who founded Luster Products in 1957. Johnson Products, Luster Products, J. M. Products, and other black haircare companies would eventually become part of the American Health and Beauty Aids Institute (AHBAI), a trade association founded in Chicago.

In the 1960s, Joshua helped to start Ravel Products in Chicago but sold his share of the company to his business partner. He also worked as a chemist and plant manager for Luster Products. In 1972, Joshua moved his family to Los Angeles, California, and started another company selling his Isodine (which later became Isoplus) product to black salons door-to-door. Due to illness, he moved back to his home state of Arkansas in 1977. For almost ten years, he expanded his company to include two manufacturing facilities in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and North Little Rock. The Little Rock facility was located at 3117 Peyton Street (off Asher Avenue); the street was later renamed Joshua Street.

In the 1980s, Joshua purchased a building for the J. M. Products headquarters. By 1989, renovations were under way on the two-story brick that once housed the Economic Opportunity Agency (EOA), located at 2501 South State Street.

The company’s four original brands were Isoplus, Isoplus for Kids, UpTurn, and Oil of K. It also began carrying Black Magic, which was purchased in 1994 from American Beauty Products of Oklahoma. The products were distributed to major retailers across the country. His business eventually included operations in Jamaica, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

Thelma Joshua, who cofounded J. M. Products with her husband, also owned Thelma’s Beauty Academy (a cosmetology school located on State Street across from the company headquarters) and AfraJaMex (one of the first shops to open in the River Market district), which sold handcrafted items from Africa, Jamaica, and Mexico.

In the 1980s, Joshua began to gain recognition for his entrepreneurship. Governor Bill Clinton honored him for his contributions to the state, and in 1986, Joshua was chosen as the Arkansas Small Business Person of the Year. Joshua and his wife were honored at the White House by President Ronald Regan for their achievements in business. In 1987, the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce presented Joshua with its first Pinnacle Award. That same year, he was runner-up for the U.S. Small Business Person of the Year. In 1994, President Bill Clinton invited him to participate in the first U.S. Trade Mission to South Africa, and he was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.

By 2002, Joshua, who was chief executive officer, was semi-retired from the family-operated company, with his son Michael Joshua running the day-to-day operation as president and general manager.

Ernest Joshua Sr. died on September 22, 2005, and is buried in Arkansas State Veterans Cemetery in North Little Rock. He was posthumously elected into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame in 2007. In 2009, the company filed for bankruptcy, and the business eventually closed.

For additional information:
Freeman, Helaine R. “Ernest Parnell Joshua.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 21, 2002, pp. 1D, 8D.

“Joshua to Consolidate Head Offices in Building Once Owned by EOA.” Arkansas Democrat, October 11, 1989, p. 2B.

Sabin, Rainer. “77-year-old Founder of J. M. Products Dies.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, September, 23, 2005, p. 7B.

Smith, David. “LR Hair-Care Firm Files for Chapter 11.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 5, 2009, pp. 1D, 6D.

Linda McDowell
Butler Center for Arkansas Studies

Last Updated 12/2/2017

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