By Yoon Joung Lee
A co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET) and the nation’s first Black female billionaire, Sheila Crump Johnson, was born in 1949 in Chicago, IL, as a daughter of a neurosurgeon. When she was a freshman at the University of Illinois, she met her future husband Robert Johnson who was her mentor during the orientation for new comers. They soon fell in love with each other and got married two years later in 1968. They were married for 33 years until they divorced in 2002 and have two children, Paige and Brett.
Together, they founded the entertainment network BET and expanded into a broadcasting empire. When the couple later sold the business to a cable giant Viacom for 3 billion in 1997, they equally split $1.5 billion in proceeds of the sale. After their divorce, Johnson became the first African-American female billionaire in the States and Forbes estimates her wealth at $750 million.
Although many people recognize her as the former wife of BET chief executive Robert L. Johnson, she herself has made numerous accomplishments on her own other than her accomplishments during the marriage. Sheila Johnson is not only a visionary businesswoman and an entrepreneur but also she is a philanthropist, photographer, designer, violinist, and filmmaker.
Though she is mainly known as the first African-American woman, to own in co partnership, three professional sports franchises: the Washington Capitals, Washington Wizards, and the Washington Mystics. She is also a supporter of the UNCF, Parsons School of Design (where she serves as Chair of the Board), the State University of New York at Morrisville, and the Hill School in Middleburg. As an accomplished photographer, her photos have been displayed in various restaurants and galleries in Virginia. As a designer, she creates her own line of linens manufactured in Italy. As a violinist, she taught music at Sidwell Friends School in D.C. and published a music textbook for student violinists. She also served as an executive film producer. Two of her films, Kicking It and A Powerful Noise, were premiered in 2008 each at Sundance Film Festival and Tribeca Film Festival.
Although Johnson’s official title at BET was executive vice president for corporate affairs, it was obvious that BET and Johnson’s fortune could not be established without her work. With an equal partnership, she fully devoted her time and effort to the company while she was a best friend and the biggest supporter for her husband as well. When her dissatisfaction on her role and the couple’s professional and personal differences escalated, her husband fired her and they ended up filing for divorce in 2002. Their divorce ultimately opened up Johnson a new door in her career.
In an effort to get over this painful experience in her life, she settled in Middleburg, Virginia: horse-farm country with a majority white population. There, she enjoyed the quiet and peaceful countryside. The place was also perfect for her daughter, Paige, who loves riding horses. While she was resting at the farm, she decided to launch the hospitality business to entertain people in a different way.
In 2005, she founded the company called Salamander Hospitality, LLC. Under her leadership, Salamander Hospitality includes the Woodlands Resorts & Inn in Summerville, South Carolina, a 900 acre of the Innisbrook Resort and 72 hole of PGA tour Golf Club in Palm Harbor, Florida, and the Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, Virginia. In the same year of 2005, she remarried Arlington County Circuit Court Chief Juge William T. Newman, who presided over her divorce.
Her name is on the numerous “firsts” lists in various fields: She was the first African-American female billionaire and she was the first African-American female to launch a luxury hotel business. Despite her accomplishments, Sheila Johnson is a humble and loving woman who has a reputation in the community for being generous and helping others in need.
As a mother of two, she will continue to put her effort to have her children receive a high quality education and guidance. As a supervisor of 25 employees in her Salamander Farm, she will continues to be a great leader with passion and vision. She will also continue to exhibit her photographs and play her violin at various fundraising events.