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Adding Feathers to Her Cap

Sheila Johnson with her chefs at Market Salamander: from left, Spence Winthorpe, Vaughn Skaggs and Jeffrey Potter.
Sheila Johnson with her chefs at Market Salamander: from left, Spence Winthorpe, Vaughn Skaggs and Jeffrey Potter. (By Margaret Thomas -- The Washington Post)

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By Dionne Walker
Associated Press
Sunday, January 15, 2006

When Sheila C. Johnson buzzed onto the scene more than two decades ago, it was as co-founder of Black Entertainment Television.

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Now, nearly six years after the sale of the groundbreaking cable network, she has reinvented herself as a powerful developer and a political force in Virginia.

Johnson has ruffled feathers with her plans to build an expansive inn and spa amid the rolling hills of Middleburg. And when she's not jetting to New York, where she sits on the board of the Parsons School of Design, Johnson is busy reorganizing one of her favorite acquisitions, the Washington Mystics women's pro basketball franchise.

"I was brought up that I could do whatever I wanted to do," she said from Salamander Farm, her home in The Plains. "I never use the word 'can't.' "

She doesn't have time to.

In Middleburg, the recently remarried divorcee of businessman Robert Johnson darts between town hearings and interviews and her posh corner cafe, Market Salamander, where chunky mini-crab cakes run $12 a pop. She plans to open an expanded version of the cafe in exclusive Palm Beach, Fla., in the spring.

But her biggest project has been Salamander Resort and Spa. Scheduled to open in 2008, it will feature horseback riding and spacious facilities that Johnson said will lure vacationing couples and Fortune 500 companies alike.

"Why not here?" she asked. "There's nothing else around. . . . It's just a great area to do this."

Johnson has always dared to dream big.

She was raised outside Chicago during the civil rights era and enjoyed an upper-middle-class existence at a time when many black families were struggling. Still, she was reminded that race mattered.

There was the time when, as a teenager, Johnson won an all-state violin competition. Someone dryly noted no black girl had ever been Illinois's youth chair.

Another time, while visiting a friend, "I remember the father saying to the daughter, 'You didn't say she was a blackie,' " recalled Johnson, who said she drew strength from such humiliation.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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