By Dawn Scotland
The Truth Reporter
Sheila Johnson, the first black woman millionaire and co-founder of BET, made a stop at Toledo Public Library’s Mccalister Hall, October 10 to discuss her debut book, Walk Through Fire: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Triumph, as a part of the Toledo Public Libraries Authors! Series.
Erin Baker, director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at the Toledo Lucas County Public Library, served as moderator for the event. The two women held a candid conversation during which Johnson discussed her upbringing in Maywood, Illinois as a concert violinist, the development and early days of BET, her turbulent marriage and the mental health struggles which are detailed in her book.
She, along with her former husband Robert (Bob) Johnson, started BET in 1979. Their high-profile 33-year marriage ended in divorce in 2002 with the couple selling the company in 1999 to Viacom.
She accounts that from BET’s inception “There was a lot of stuff going on there … from theft, to drug use, to affairs…”, accounted Johnson. “One day it all hit the fan and I was fired by my own husband, and I was half owner.” She states that her husband, Bob Johnson, tried to erase her from their accomplishments and never gave her credit as co-founder of the network which ultimately sold for $3 Billion.
Johnson underwent years of therapy to recover from her relationship and discussed that she was prompted by other authors to write her story as a means of healing.
“I have been suffering for a long, long time, despite [all of my accomplishments] I was carrying a very heavy burden being in a marriage that was very abusive. It was just time for me to tell my story… I woke up one day and said ‘I think I’m ready.”
This year, former CEO of BET Debra Lee revealed in her own memoir that she and Bob Johnson, her mentor and boss, had an ongoing affair while both were still married and working at BET. This is one of many affairs that Shelia Johnson accounts in their tumultuous marriage.
Johnson, now 74 years old and remarried, has embarked on what she calls the third act of her life. She established a new home in the town of Middleburg, Virginia where she bought a farm, created a market, performing arts center and a founded a hospitality company Salamander Hotels & Resorts making Middleburg the wealthiest historic town in Virginia.
Johnson adopted the Salamander as a namesake for her company because “mythically it’s the only animal that can walk through fire and still come out alive.”, she remarked, “and the only that [you can] chop off its limbs and it regenerates.”
Her story started with a challenging beginning in Maywood, Illinois, later becoming the first black female billionaire, before Oprah Winfrey. Johnson is also the only African American woman to have a principal shareholder stake in three professional sports teams.
When asked what advice she would give to her younger self she provided an excerpt from her book. “Trust your instincts, get to know who you are before you give yourself to someone else, believe that you can find happiness and that you deserve it. You are going to be ok.”
Guests enjoyed a VIP gathering prior to the discussion and photo shoot with the famed author following the talk and Q&A session. A hardcover copy of the book was included with the event.
The presenting sponsor for the event was the Library Legacy Foundation and the community sponsor, Friends of the Library.