By Dionne Walker
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.
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.
She would need it when she came to Middleburg in 1996.
The small town was settled in the 1700s as the halfway point between Alexandria and Winchester. It is known for fox hunting, vineyards and the horseback riding that drew Johnson.
For years, people there have struck a balance between caviar tastes and small-town sensibilities.
Supervisor James Burton (I-Blue Ridge) worries that Johnson's upscale ambitions threaten that.
"Very few people in Loudoun County will ever stay at this resort," said Burton, who represents Middleburg and the site of the spa. "To put a 120-room hotel there . . . it would just completely change the town."
Change is good, according to Johnson, who said she has received both racially tinged hate mail and letters of support since arriving in Middleburg.
Last month, Loudoun supervisors approved the permit that Johnson needed to move forward with the resort construction.
Johnson just completed another big project: serving as co-chairman of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's inauguration, organizing and promoting yesterday's event in Williamsburg. Kaine said Johnson will serve as an unofficial adviser to his administration on such matters as childhood education.
"We have a great regard for each other," said Kaine (D), who met Johnson through friends two years ago. "I'm sure I'll go to her many times during my administration."
Johnson will have no problem expressing strong opinions.
She openly chides those blacks who make idols out of celebrities and espouses the same controversial notions of personal responsibility that have earned comedian Bill Cosby criticism from some black leaders. Still, she argues that racism is alive and well, and she points to "appalling" Hurricane Katrina coverage as evidence of how blacks are viewed in the United States.
She challenges politicians to visit poverty-stricken neighborhoods and calls the Democratic Party a national failure.
"If they're gonna really be in this ballgame, they need to start looking at some good candidates," said Johnson, who supports Virginia's departing governor, Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, for president and contributed more than $400,000 to Kaine's campaign, his single largest gift from an individual.
"I have no aspirations politically, but I like to support those politically who are right about the subjects," she said.
Johnson doesn't watch BET, which she feels "needs to grow," and she hedges on details about her divorce from Robert Johnson, with whom she maintains a friendship.
The two gained billionaire status upon selling BET to Viacom in 2000.
Johnson instead focuses on amateur photography, her two children and her husband, Arlington County Circuit Court Judge William T. Newman Jr.
The past is the past. It's the future she has her eye on now.
"I'm a firm believer in not looking back," said Johnson, whose icon, the salamander, in mythology has the power to withstand fire. "I've been through a lot of fire and still come out alive."