MIDDLEBURG, Va. — Sheila Johnson has built her life in three acts. Concert violinist. Co-founder of BET. And now, pioneering her way through the hospitality industry.
But in Middleburg, this renaissance woman is known as a bridge builder.
Johnson uses her sprawling property in Loudoun County to bring people together, drawing on its power to heal a community, and perhaps even our splintered nation.
And it all started with a drive past a symbol of hate and division.
“There was a very rundown, old gun shop which had one window on the front," Johnson recalls. "And in that window was a confederate flag."
Every time Johnson drove by and saw that flag in the window of a building where she was about to put down roots, she felt unsettled. So she bought the building and transitioned it into a market.
Market Salamander would be Johnson’s first entrée into this town of less than 700 people. As an African American businesswoman, she envisioned a future that would manifest far beyond one corner on Middleburg’s main street.
“It gives me pride, but I also have to stay humble,” Johnson said of the investment she’s made in this quiet enclave. “You know, I’ve got a long road ahead of me. And, I got to keep that business going to help the health of this town.”
Salamander Spa & Resort
The horse and hunt capital with rolling hills as part of its vista would eventually become home to the new Salamander Resort & Spa -- a place where Johnson wants all people to feel welcome.
“Can I talk with you all?” Johnson asked, as she met some visitors to the property from Pennsylvania. “Hi, I’m Mrs. Johnson. I’m the owner.”
Set on 340 acres of land, this place of restoration was named for the mythical power of the amphibian that could walk through fire and still emerge, alive. She sees parallels with her own life.
“I was going through a period in my life, it was time to regenerate and find a whole new purpose,” Johnson said.
Salamander found its purpose early on, but securing its pride of place among the natives here in Middleburg would take time. And then, there was Sheila herself: an African American businesswoman poised to upend a town not used to seeing people of color in positions of power.
“I forgot when I decided to build this place that I was south of the Mason/Dixon line,” she said, as she reflected on the genesis of change.
Johnson said she faced threats and even acts of hatred. She had to convince the community that she wasn’t going to destroy their way of life, but wanted to enhance it.
Johnson showed WUSA9's Lesli Foster around her property a month after she reopened it. She and her team had to reimagine how the Forbes 5-Star property looks and feels during a pandemic. They wanted to avoid ending up with COVID-19 as an unwanted guest.
But getting there took months of work, after furloughs of hundreds of staff members. Most are now back working harder than ever. It was, Johnson said, a wake-up call.
“I’ve got to step up a little higher as a leader," she said. "I’ve got to continue to inspire them to keep this place going, to keep Salamander going. But I’m so proud of them.”
COVID ravaged more than just Johnson's Middleburg spaces. Her other hotels around the country and Jamaica, plus her business interests, took a hit too. You probably know about some of them, since you’ve probably cheered for them.
BET co-founder has ownership in 3 DC teams
Johnson – who is no stranger to “firsts” – is the only African American woman with ownership in three professional sports teams: The Mystics, Wizards and Capitals.
Sports and social justice have intersected during this time of unrest in the nation. And, Johnson’s players have used their platforms to speak out about racial injustice.
“The toughest thing was not only talking about the bubble in COVID-19, but then you had the whole George Floyd incident happen at the same time," Johnson said about protecting the players during this pandemic. “This really did affect my players more than anything I’ve ever seen. They wanted to really stay back and fight the fight for Black Lives Matter.”
Johnson said it’s important to get sports back up and running again, not just for our psyche, but for the health of the cities where teams play.
“We cannot keep arenas open if we have no fan base," she said.
She worries if this pandemic isn’t brought under control soon, and a vaccine is prolonged, the WNBA might suffer the most. Historically, the teams haven’t had the same sort of robust investment, endorsements or parity around pay as the NBA.
But Johnson knows about tough times and the fight for equity.
What lured her to these rolling hills in the first place was change.
The co-founder of Black Entertainment Television sought respite and a reset after the break-up of her marriage to Bob Johnson, her co-founder of the network.
“Does it bother you now that sometimes you don’t get the credit for what it ultimately became?" Foster asked Johnson.
"I know the work I put behind that network," Johnson responded. "I will never get the credit for it, but that’s okay. I know what I’ve done.”
Since that time, Johnson’s influence has grown exponentially. She’s now one of this country’s wealthiest and most generous African American women writing her next act. And, moving in new directions.
Before BET became a behemoth, Johnson taught music at Sidwell Friends and acted on stage to help pay the bills.
Johnson believes education can be a game-changer. She’s given away a sizable part of her fortune, as she believes her philanthropy that touches young lives, including dozens of scholars at Harvard University, can alter their future.
“I really believe in the double bottom line of giving back to the community, really trying to educate those that are having a harder time getting educated,” Johnson said. “You can’t just throw money at a program. You have to be a leader. You have to let these young people know that you’re going to be there for them.”
Before Foster parts ways with Johnson, the two women took a walk through the Middleburg's living room, the gathering place for the community. Johnson hopes, in this next act, that many more conversations will start right there. She believes if change can happen in Middleburg, it can happen anywhere.
“I look at this place as bridging gaps,” she said. “The diversity that this resort has brought in as far as our guests has been unbelievable.”
The obstacles along the way weren’t ones she could see on the path. But, much like the salamander, Johnson said that’s when people need to be resilient, go in another direction and make it work.