Sheila C. Johnson: "An American Ri$k Taker"
Those who never took the trouble to find out more might have heard of Sheila Crump Johnson as the former wife of longtime Black Entertainment Television (BET) chief executive Robert L. Johnson. That designation, however, ignores Sheila Crump Johnson's long and varied record of accomplishments of her own, before, during, and after her marriage. One of those accomplishments was the co-founding of BET itself, which the two Johnson spouses created together and expanded into a broadcasting empire. After the couple's divorce in 2002, Johnson became the first African-American female billionaire in the United States. She then gained recognition for giving large amounts of her money away.
Johnson was born Sheila Crump around 1949 in the Chicago, Illinois, suburb of Maywood. Her father was a neurosurgeon. Johnson attended Irving School in Maywood and graduated from Proviso High School in 1966. She was a member of the cheerleading squad at Proviso, but her heart was in music. She aspired to a career as a concert violinist, and she would sometimes get up at midnight, after the rest of the family had gone to sleep, to practice her violin for hours in the kitchen of her home. "I realized that after I graduated from high school, I always had a drive in me that desired to be the best that I could be," Johnson said in a 2002 speech at the State University of New York at Morrisville, as quoted by the New York Times. "But still, I believed you should do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
Concentrated on Music
Majoring in music at the University of Illinois, she rose to the rank of concertmaster in the Illinois All-State Orchestra. It was at Illinois that she met Robert L. Johnson. The romance flowered, and the two were married in 1969 after Robert abandoned a graduate scholarship at Princeton University to move back to Illinois so they could be closer to each other. After Sheila's graduation in 1970, the couple moved to Washington, D.C.
At first, Johnson worked as a researcher in the office of New York Republican Senator Jacob K. Javits, but she soon got a job teaching music at a private school, the Sidwell Friends School. As her husband became involved with the then-minuscule world of cable television, she sometimes helped the family make ends meet by giving music lessons at their home.
It was in the field of classical music, before she ever became involved with BET, that Johnson's ability to think big first showed itself. In 1975 she founded a 140-member youth orchestra, Youth Strings in Action. The group was invited to perform in the Middle Eastern nation of Jordan, and the trip went off well enough that Johnson won an appointment as cultural liaison to Jordan for the United States Information Agency, a governmental entity that worked to foster cultural exchanges and display American culture around the world. Johnson helped set up Jordan's first national music conservatory, and she was given the country's top educational award by Jordan's King Hussein. Johnson later authored a music textbook for student violinists, and for a time she served on the board of trustees of New York's Carnegie Hall.
By the early 1980s, the BET cable network had taken shape and was beginning its meteoric growth. Its founding was a joint enterprise on the part of both Johnsons, and when BET was sold to cable giant Viacom in 2002, even as both their personal and business relationships had become acrimonious, they split the proceeds of the sale equally. In the early years, BET was noted for a variety of programs showcasing the best of African-American culture. Sheila Johnson had a hand in several of those, forming an in-house hip-hop chorus and personally creating the weekly "Teen Summit" talk show, featuring up-front discussion of problems such as the threat of AIDS.
Johnson's official title at BET was executive vice president for corporate affairs, but she was an equal partner with her husband in many respects. Family friend Susan Starrett told the Washington Post that the billion-dollar Johnson fortune couldn't have been built without her work, and Johnson herself, asked by the Post whether she had played a supportive role in her husband's career, answered "Why, yes I did. I always put him first. I knew who he was. I know who he is. I was his best friend and his biggest supporter. I believed in him before he believed in himself."
Yet Johnson was dissatisfied with her role. "I detested that, living up under the cloud of Wife Of. I could not stand going to places, and everything was focused on the man, and the wives were sitting around, like they don't exist. Don't. Exist," she told the Post. Too, she felt alienated by the increasingly raunchy direction of BET's programming in the late 1990s. Some felt she played the role of the conscience of the company, and on a day-to-day basis she was more likely to be found listening to the music of classical composer Maurice Ravel than taking in one of BET's bump-and-grind musical productions. As the Johnsons' marriage deteriorated amidst rumors of Robert Johnson's affair with one or more subordinates, Sheila Johnson (who later lamented to the Post that her husband "had a body count") was fired by her husband in 1999.
The marriage itself ended in 2002. "I consider it a tragedy, and very painful," she told the Post. "But we move on. That's the way it is. I'm not going to sit down and shrivel up and disappear." And indeed she didn't. Johnson's divorce marked not only the end of one career but the beginning of several others.
Turned to Equestrian Lifestyle
Johnson purchased (for over $7 million) and took up residence on a 349-acre farm, formerly owned by Washington socialite and mover-and-shaker Pamela Harriman, near Middleburg in Loudoun County, Virginia. This was horse-farm country, extremely wealthy and almost all-white in its population. Johnson had to hire a hairstylist to make weekly trips from Washington, but she fit in quickly with her new community. "We have real neighbors who come over and bring warm breads and jams that they have made," Johnson enthused in the Washington Post. A few locals who had made veiled racial comments were won over when Johnson invited them to a letter-perfect hunt breakfast. Soon Johnson had the elaborate rituals of aristocratic Virginia country life down to a science.
Her massive fundraisers for local charities became legendary. To raise money for the Piedmont Environmental Council she organized a holiday ball that transformed an indoor horse track into a meticulously detailed winter scene, complete with falling snow, a performance by R&B greats Ashford & Simpson, and a snow queen gown for Johnson herself. A frequent guest at such events and at Johnson's Salamander Farm was her friend, Washington-based television weather personality Willard Scott.
At a Glance
Born Sheila Crump in 1949(?) in Maywood, IL; daughter of a neurosurgeon; married Robert L. Johnson (a cable television executive) (divorced, 2002); children: Paige, Brett. Education: University of Illinois, BA, music, 1970.
Career: Sidwell Friends School, Washington, DC, instructor, 1970s; Youth Strings in Action orchestra, founder, 1975; United States Information Agency, cultural liaison to Jordan, 1970s; Black Entertainment Television, co-founder (with Robert L. Johnson), executive vice president for corporate affairs, early 1980s-1999; Salamander Farm, Loudoun County, VA, owner, 2002–; Washington International Horse Show, administrator, 2002–.
Selected awards: Honorary doctorate, Bennett College, 2004; honorary doctorate, State University of New York at Morrisville.
One thing that drew Johnson to Loudoun County was the budding equestrian career of her daughter Paige, who trained six days a week on horseback and was considered a strong contender for a spot on the United States Olympic equestrian team. "I started to accumulate horses, then decided we needed our own place," Johnson told Ebony. Paige's involvement in the sport cost Johnson an estimated $1 million annually. Johnson became involved in horse show administration herself, and as president of the Washington International Horse Show she guided the event to it’s first-ever profit. Her younger son, Brett, also showed promise as an athlete.
Generously Gave Away Millions
Johnson's fundraising experiences had begun during her marriage, as she and her husband helped build the campaign war chests of President Bill Clinton. She gave $3 million to Middleburg's Hill School, a private institution her son attended, but she quickly expanded her philanthropic efforts beyond their local scope. She was invited to give a commencement speech at the State University of New York at Morrisville, a school with both a strong equestrian program and a large minority enrollment; after her highly motivational speech proved a rousing success, Johnson offered a $1 million gift. She followed that up with a $2 million gift to the financially struggling Bennett College, a historically black school in Greensboro, North Carolina, and in 2003 she gave $7 million to New York's Parsons School of Design; it was by far the largest gift the school had ever received.
Typically, Johnson had still bigger things in mind. She planned to create a foundation with $100 million in assets, and she met with Microsoft founder Bill Gates to discuss the administration of his multibillion-dollar Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. On the income side of the ledger, Johnson announced plans for the Salamander Inn & Spa, a luxury resort to be built on a portion of her Loudoun County property. The only hint of conflict with her new neighbors came when local residents resisted the project even though Johnson had herself rescued Salamander Farm from tract development plans a few years earlier. Johnson won some people over with plans to serve local products at the resort's restaurant and at a planned Salamander Market in Middleburg.
Winning approval for the inn was an exacting process, with county officials questioning details right down to the thread count of the sheets to be used in guest rooms. But by mid-2004 the final hurdles in the path of the project seemed to have been cleared, and Sheila Crump Johnson was ready to add another item to her list of "firsts": She was the first African-American woman to build a luxury hotel. She continued to shape her children's educations and careers, exhibited and sold her photographs of Europe in local galleries, and supervised the staff of 25 who attended to the 13 buildings on Salamander Farm. And sometimes, when she staged or attended a fundraising event, she provided the music herself by bringing along her violin.