Madam Sally Johnson-Bledsoe entered the world on March 3, 1941, lived a jubilant, full life of 80 years, then slipped away in grace on June 14, 2021.
The matriarch of the Johnson family, Sally was born in Osceola, Arkansas, to Ollie B. Goss (Hood) and Will Goss. In 1945, at the age of four, the family with Sally moved to Chicago during the Great Migration. The family settled and planted their roots on the 1200 block of North Bell Street. She was raised by Ollie (affectionately known as Ms. B) and A.J. Carswell. While an only child, Sally was never lonely as she had numerous cousins with whom she was very close. Her mother was a sibling to 17 brothers and sisters, and there were many cousins to play and grow with. She was raised to value family, community, and service to others. Sally imparted these values in her two beloved sons, Meldemetrius Tony Johnson I and Arthur Mychal Johnson.
A sound biblical foundation was important to Sally, and as a child, she took initial steps to make Christ Lord of her life at the Greater Bethlehem Baptist Church under the leadership of Rev. Benny Washington. Years later, she moved her membership to United Faith Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church under the leadership of Bishop Willie Treadwell. Sally would become a member of the legendary Treadwell Singers for many years. As Sally continued in faith, her membership moved to Christ Universal Temple under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Johnnie Coleman. Sally served on various boards and became close to her leader until Dr. Coleman’s demise. Sally loved God, a good choir, and God’s people. Sally was somewhat of an Honorary Member of Emanuel COGIC; although she never joined, she would visit where her son Mel I, his wife, and children attend. Sally made herself at home there and was consistent. We know that she is safe in the arms of Jesus.
Sally graduated from Tuley High School and attended Wilber Wright Junior College in Chicago. She went on to further her education at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. and Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, where she received her B.A. in Inner City Studies.
In 1955, her first job was at a nickel-and-dime store at the age of 14. As she learned and grew, her desire for more did too. She went to work as a receptionist at the Cook County Fantus Clinic (by day) and as a Spiegel Warehouse Clerk (by night). Her work ethic and drive helped her family earn enough money to purchase a multifamily building on North Bell, the first-ever real estate transaction in her family. That initial purchase propelled her to go on to own property in Wicker Park, Oak Park, and on Chicago’s Gold Coast. Sally was a go-getter and allowed nothing to stand in her way.
Sally co-founded Allies for a Better Community (ABC), a multiethnic initiative to organize Black and Puerto Rican residents on the West Side of Chicago around housing needs and other civil rights. Her work with ABC was memorialized in “Black Power at Work: Community Control, Affirmative Action, and the Construction Industry,” among other publications. Her work brought her into close contact with many notable civil rights leaders, including C. T. Vivian, Stokely Carmichael, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with whom she marched in Marquette Park.
Sally brought peace to her neighborhood by helping mediate between local street gangs, which helped establish a neutral outpost center on Division and Leavitt. She built one of the region’s
first women-in-construction job training and placement organizations, M.A. Goss and Associates. Sally helped support Operation Breadbasket, which used selective buying to pressure white businesses to hire Black workers and purchase goods and services from Black contractors. She worked for the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs to help build economic, racial, and social justice. And she was a proud member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity).
Sally was involved in several political campaigns; the most noted was the election of Chicago’s first Black Mayor, the late Mayor Harold Washington. Sally used her organizational expertise and spearheaded a movement to rally Latino voters to the polls in 1983, leading to Mayor Washington’s clear-cut win. Sally’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed; she was appointed to Mayor Washington’s cabinet and served as the first Black woman Commissioner of the Office of Inquiry and Information. As Commissioner, Sally traveled to Dakar, Senegal, and helped establish the Harold Washington Hospital, which included a birthing/incubator center where tens of thousands of infants and children have been born and boarded. This center dropped the mortality rate tremendously in Africa.
Sally had a profound and unwavering love for Africa. A golden outline of the African continent was the most consistent piece of jewelry Sally wore. In addition to Senegal, Sally traveled to Ghana, Morocco, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Gambia, and Liberia. While in Africa, she walked the path that many would-be slaves in America traveled on Gorée Island. Sally’s love would bring back and send for African dancers and exchange students. She would house and mother them until completion of projects and school. Once their assignments were finished, she would ensure that they returned home safely.
Sally’s love of Africa inspired the first of her successful business ventures as a notable W/MBE that paved pathways for opportunity, equality, and fair dealing. She established a commodity exchange with Africa to bring rice and grain to the continent. She built, from the ground up, Chicago Architectural Windows, which provided job opportunities to dozens of men and women whose work can be seen in Loyola Business School, the University of Illinois at Chicago Molecular Biology Lab, and Simeon Career Academy, among countless other homes and businesses.
Across the world – from Chicago to New Orleans and from New York to Bangkok and beyond, Sally’s rich network of friends gave her life, love, and inspiration. Many fell in love with Sally. She was married to Bo Wilson and Arthur Johnson, but the love of her life was John Bledsoe, whom she married in 1995 and remained by his side until his passing in 2005.
Sally (NaNa to her grandchildren) is survived by her sons: Meldemetrius Tony Johnson I (Alayna), Arthur Mychal Johnson (Corrine Kohut); grandchildren Andre Stewart, Mel II, Melinique, Alexis, Timothy, Amanda, and Jikai Kohut-Johnson; two great-grandchildren Aleida and Adriel Stewart; Godchildren Brian Hubbard and Sonya Brown; and a host of those she called brothers and sisters, cousins and friends to share in her memories. Sally’s parents, aunts, uncles, and husbands proceeded her in death.
Sally lived her life to the fullest, with no regrets, and would want you to do the same. In the words of Sally, “You did what you needed to do; now know, God is in charge!!”
A celebration of life will be held on Saturday, June 26 at 2:00 pm at Emanuel Church of God in Christ, 3058 West Van Buren Street, Chicago, IL, 6061