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Tue, 01.25.1949

Sheila Johnson, Entrepreneur born

Shelia Johnson

*Sheila Johnson was born on this date in 1949. She is a Black businesswoman and philanthropist.  Johnson was born Sheila Crump in Chicago, Illinois, a suburb of Maywood.

Her father was a neurosurgeon. Johnson attended Irving School in Maywood and graduated from Proviso High School in 1966. Though she was a cheerleading squad member at Proviso, she aspired to a career as a concert violinist. 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.  Majoring in music at the University of Illinois, she rose to the rank of concertmaster in the Illinois All-State Orchestra. It was in Illinois that she met Robert L. Johnson. The two were married in 1969.

After her 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 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 home. 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 she won an appointment as a cultural liaison to Jordan for the United States Information Agency. Johnson helped set up the country's first national music conservatory, and Jordan's King Hussein gave her the country's top educational award.

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 Black Entertainment Television cable network had taken shape; its founding was a joint enterprise of Johnson's.  In the early years, BET 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 discussions of problems such as the threat of AIDS. When BET was sold to cable giant Viacom in 2002, even as their personal and business relationships had become bitter, they split the sale proceeds equally. After the couple's divorce in 2002, Johnson became the first black female billionaire in the United States. She then gained recognition for giving large amounts of her money away.

She purchased a residence on a 349-acre farm near Middleburg in Loudoun County, Virginia.  Her fundraisers for local charities became legendary. One thing that drew Johnson to Loudoun County was the budding equestrian career of her daughter Paige. The latter trained six days a week on horseback and was considered a strong contender for a spot on the United States Olympic equestrian team. Her younger son, Brett, also showed promise as an athlete. She gave $3 million to Middleburg's Hill School, a private institution her son attended. She gave a $2 million gift to the financially struggling Bennett College, a historically black school in Greensboro, North Carolina. 2003, she gave $7 million to New York's Parsons School of Design.

Johnson also built the Salamander Inn & Spa, a luxury resort to be built on a portion of her Loudoun County property. 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 the 13 buildings on Salamander Farm. And sometimes, when she staged or attended a fundraising event, she provided the music by bringing her violin.

Sheila Crump Johnson's long and varied record of her own accomplishments before, during, and after her marriage. She has an honorary doctorate from Bennett College in 2004 and an honorary doctorate from the State University of New York at Morrisville. In 2023, Johnson published her autobiography, 'Walk Through Fire.'

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