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Sheila Johnson on walking through fire

Just outside the nation’s capital, amid Virginia’s picturesque hills and stone walls, lies a place that time seems to have forgotten, the place where Sheila Johnson calls home.

She came here in 1996 to find refuge. At the time, BET (Black Entertainment Television), the company she co-founded with her then-husband Bob Johnson, was enjoying huge success. But their difficult marriage was the talk of the town.

“The rumor was off base,” Johnson said. “People were telling me, ‘I saw them at the Super Bowl.’ “Oh, I saw her coming down with her shirt on.” And I said, I need a place where I can be alone, in peace.

Sheila Johnson.

CBS News

Today, Johnson is a highly successful businesswoman, co-owner of three sports teams (the Washington Mystics, Washington Wizards, and Washington Capitals) and the first black woman to enter the very exclusive, very white, billionaires’ club. very masculine. And yet, she says, languages ​​continue to be exchanged. “You know, they look at me and say, ‘Okay, you were supposedly the first black billionaire and everything, and you had it so easy.’ No, I didn’t.”

“Do people say that, Did you get it so easily?” asked Gilles.

“You have no idea. There are so many stories going around. They need to hear from me.”

His new book, “Walk Through Fire: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Triumph” (published by CBS sister company Simon & Schuster), takes its title from the legend of the salamander. “It’s the only mythical animal that walks through fire and comes out alive,” she said.

Simon & Schuster

It is also the name of its impressive collection of five-star luxury resorts.

It’s been ten years since the doors of its flagship Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, Virginia opened. It was not, she admits, an easy road.

In a way, the town of Middleburg welcomed it: “But what really bothered me was going into town every day and seeing a Confederate flag in a gun store,” Johnson said. “When I saw this flag, I said: My God, where did I move? And I just decided to buy the building. And it’s now a wonderful market. That’s the beauty of having a little money.”

Getting city approval to build a resort was another matter. “I thought I left one fire. I jumped into a really big fire. And I forgot I was south of the Mason-Dixon line. They came after me with all the barrels. They signed petitions. We had hearings. I won by one vote.”

One thing to know about Sheila Johnson: giving up is not in her DNA.

She credits the impact her mother had on her: “Here she was at the top of the social circle, as a woman, as a mother, married to a doctor.”

It was an African-American success story, even if that success was hard-won. By the age of ten, Sheila Crump had moved 13 times, due to her father’s working conditions: “We moved about every ten months,” she said, “because my father couldn’t work in white hospitals.” . I couldn’t even operate on white patients. »

Eventually, his father got a permanent job in Chicago and they were able to buy a house and settle down. Sheila took up the violin and excelled at it.

And then, without warning, his father announced that he was leaving the family. “It brought us all to our knees, because it was only one night, and he said, ‘I’m leaving.'”

His mother suffered from depression. “She’s always been my backbone,” Johnson said. “And I was losing her. It really destroyed me in a way. And then I realized, I said: Sheila, you know, you can’t play the victim here.

With the help of her violin teacher, she earned a music scholarship to the University of Illinois, where she met an upperclassman named Bob Johnson.

Sheila was young at the time. “Really young. How about 16 and a half?”

His first impression of Bob Johnson? “I was always looking for someone ambitious,” she said. “But I was also going through something else psychologically, because my father was gone. I didn’t feel loved. He wanted me. And because he wanted me, I wanted him.”

Their marriage lasted 33 years. Today, she says she shouldn’t have let it last this long. “I didn’t want to be a failure,” Johnson said. “And I kept saying: I can get through this. And I was really behind him. So much so that I was taken off the board. »

Their divorce was finalized in 2002. By coincidence or fate, the end of this chapter was the beginning of another. “As I entered the courtroom, I looked at the judge and my lawyer, I said: I think I know this guy.

The “guy” was Judge William T. Newman Jr. He recalled: “Many, many years ago, we were in a play together. (“Ceremonies in Dark Old Men” by Lonne Elder III, at the Washington Theater Club.) When the matter was over, she said, “Excuse me, Your Honor, may I come to the bench?” » And I said, “Of course.” »

Johnson asked him, “‘Do you remember me?’ He says, ‘Oh yes, I do!'”

She invited him to a gala she was organizing. She addressed the invitation, “William T. Newman Jr. and guest.”

Newman told his mother about it, suggesting he bring someone he had just started dating: “My mom said, ‘Oh, no. You’re going to this party alone!'”

Three years later, Sheila and William were married in a lavish wedding that was the social event of the season. “I said, I love this man so much, we’re going to celebrate him” Johnson said. “We had 750 people at that wedding. It was, I must say, the most beautiful wedding.”

These days, Sheila Johnson looks forward, not back. And she has no plans to slow down: “I’ve come to accept the fact that we have to walk through the fire to come out stronger on the other end.”

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Story produced by Mary Lou Teel. Editor: Mike Levine.


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