ARKANSAS CITY -- Linda Johnson Rice had not seen the towering sculpture of her father, John H. Johnson -- except for the head -- until it was unveiled Wednesday morning.
As she told those who crowded the John H. Johnson Commemorative Plaza, Rice placed her trust in Susan Holley Williams, the Dumas-born artist whose mission was -- as Rice and her daughter Alexa put it -- to bring their father and grandfather back home to Arkansas City.
"It's spectacular," Rice said, moments after sharing an emotional embrace with Williams. "I'm so proud of what Susan Williams created. I trusted her, and she did something that was beyond my expectations. I think my father would love this."
Williams helped unveil the bronze statue to symbolize the opening of Arkansas' newest outdoor plaza, designed near the Mississippi River bank in Johnson's birthplace at the Delta Heritage Trail State Park. The Arkansas City trailhead, established in 2017, serves as the southernmost point of the 84.5-mile trail that is under construction in phases, with trails open between Lexa and Elaine in Phillips County and Watson and Arkansas City in Desha County.
"We're kind of down to the last two sections, but along the trail there are separate trailheads," said Shea Lewis, state Parks, Heritage and Tourism Department secretary. "I would say the Arkansas City trailhead is the most developed or most enhanced with interpretation, especially now with the John H. Johnson Commemorative Plaza."
Arkansas State Parks and the Walton Family Foundation commissioned Williams' larger-than-life artwork.
"I'm just very happy to be here today," Lynne Walton of the Walton Family Foundation said. "It's a very important event for us all to recognize Mr. Johnson."
The sculptor, who shares her time between Little Rock and Chicago, said the statue took about six to nine months to complete. It was a godsend, not a coincidence, that a Desha County native would recreate the image of the area's native son.
"Lots of dedication and patience -- and being willing to tear it apart and start all over again, over and over," Williams said. She started over about 12 times, by her own recollection.
"It was all worth it," she said. "It feels wonderful."
The unveiling was just one of many activities that comprised John H. Johnson Day in this small river town of less than 500, which serves as the seat of Desha County.
The plaza honors Johnson, who according to Rice twice repeated eighth grade before moving to Chicago where he later established Johnson Publishing Co., of which Rice is now president and CEO. The company grew to become the largest Black-owned publisher in the country, according to his biography, and is best known for magazines Negro Digest, Ebony and Jet.
Johnson died in 2005 at age 87 and is buried in Chicago.
An indoor pavilion, picnic tables and large displays of each magazine adorn the plaza, each display giving a highlight of Johnson's career and his publications.
"What this park did, in addition to recognizing John Johnson with the statue and interpretive panels ... it also added parking to our facility, allowing us to accommodate more guests coming to the park," said Jordan Thomas, the design services manager for Arkansas State Parks credited as the landscape architect for the plaza. "We have an educational amphitheater here that our park staff can use for interpretive events. School groups can come and do educational things."
The statue unveiling brought schoolchildren from Little Rock, Dermott, McGehee and Lakeside (Chicot County) districts together to witness a piece of history that helps preserve the history of one of America's most important publishers.
"The commitment to the Delta and the commitment to the outstanding accomplishments of Mr. Johnson is something that the Walton Family Foundation fully supports," Kim Davis, senior advisor of the foundation, said.