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Sheila Johnson discusses her groundbreaking career and new memoir 'Walk Through Fire'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: She made history as America's first Black female billionaire after co-founding the Black Entertainment Network, or BET.

Sheila Johnson has broken barriers and found success as an entrepreneur, a business leader, a hotel mogul, and co-owner of multiple professional sports teams. But that success came at a cost, and it masked deep pain and trauma that Johnson carried for decades.

I sat down with her recently to talk about going public with her story for the first time, in "Walk Through Fire: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Triumph."

Sheila Johnson, thank you so much for joining us here at the "NewsHour."

Sheila Johnson, Author, "Walk Through Fire: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Triumph": Thank you. It's an honor to be here.

Amna Nawaz: You stayed silent about much of this, much of your personal story, for years, your family, your marriage, all the behind the scenes of the power circles here in Washington.

Why share all this now?

Sheila Johnson: Because the silence was killing me inside. And it was time for me to open up those wounds, and it was time for them to heal. It's been a journey.

I have been through three acts of my life, and each one of them carried certain problems, the second act especially, and unusually painful problems. And now I'm in my third act, and I'm healing and I'm happier than I have ever been.

Amna Nawaz: I want to talk about each of those acts.

Sheila Johnson: Yes.

Amna Nawaz: But let's start closer to the beginning.

Your father was a military veteran. He was a doctor. Your mother was an accountant. Life seemed relatively comfortable for you growing up, but all that changed when you were a teenager. And your father basically tells you flat out: I'm leaving.

Sheila Johnson: Absolutely.

Amna Nawaz: You write about it in the book and you say: "That's how I learned after 18 years of marriage, after raising two children, buying a home, achieving what looked like the American dream, my father had decided he wanted something different out of life."

Why start with that story in the book?

Sheila Johnson: Because that was the time I realized I had to grow up suddenly, because women back then, and I have learned this over the years, they had very few rights.

I mean, just to up and leave two children and a wife that depended on his income, she — her bank account was in the name, in his name, credit cards, you name it. She didn't know which way to turn. And I think it just really manifested itself where I found her with a nervous breakdown.

And it just was the most painful thing for me to ever watch. That has stuck with me for the rest of my life.

Amna Nawaz: You moved a lot as a kid too, right?


Sheila Johnson: Yes, 13 times.

Amna Nawaz: Thirteen times.

Sheila Johnson: Yes.

Amna Nawaz: And why?

Sheila Johnson: Because my father, as an African American neurosurgeon, was not allowed to practice in white hospitals.

Also, he could only really work with patients that were of color.

Amna Nawaz: Yes.

Sheila Johnson: He couldn't perform operations unless they were Black. And then, once he ran out of patients, then they moved us again. It was about every 10 months, until we settled outside of Chicago.

Amna Nawaz: You talk about these hard lessons of racism. And you write this one line that stuck with me. You said: "I was always drawn to places that Black people don't usually go."

What did you mean by that? Why do you think that is?

Sheila Johnson: I just got tired of not being able to move forward.

And I think what happens in the African American race is that we're suppressed so much. We're taught to not speak out. We're taught to not talk about each other. Communication is very little. And even as a young person, they were saying you should be seen and not heard.

And it just went against who I am. It's not in my DNA. And I love challenges. I'm a risk-taker. So it was just important that I just — these doors would open. And I said, why can't I go through them? And I decided I was going to go through every door that came my way.

Amna Nawaz: You do devote a lot of time in the book to your 30-year marriage to Bob Johnson, your co-founder at BET…

Sheila Johnson: Yes.

Amna Nawaz: … and to his infidelities. And you write very candidly about the shame that you felt.

And you write about people coming up to you at parties and asking you to please stay with him, to stay together…

Sheila Johnson: That's right.

Amna Nawaz: … because the community needs you.

What was that like?

Sheila Johnson: I think, because of how successful BET was — and you're the king and queen of media. You're the first Black company on television.

And they were proud of the fact that there was that representation there, and for it to have scandal, where we would break up, it sort of shatters the image of what we were trying to build. But, in the meantime, behind the scenes, there was so much going on that — people knew it too. They didn't really want to speak about it, but there were people out there that really loved watching what was going down.

They loved hearing about it. There were digs made at me. It was the ultimate betrayal. And I was there really trying to shine a spotlight on him. I was — quote — "the good wife," you know, and I was there pushing him forward and really wanting him to shine. But I was doing so much work in the background.

And I was literally erased, literally erased out of that company. And I got fired by my own husband because I found out what was really going on. And as I — when I confronted him, he wanted to get rid of me.

Amna Nawaz: You also write about the intense trauma of carrying and losing a child.

Sheila Johnson: Yes.

Amna Nawaz: About delivering and holding your son for the hour that he lived.

Why was it important for you to include that in the book?

Sheila Johnson: When people read the book, the thread that kind of goes through that, because from the emotional abuse, I felt like a failure. I felt like a failure in everything that I did, the way I looked.

I was either too fat or too thin. I was too outspoken or I didn't speak enough. It was this constant berating of who I really was.

Amna Nawaz: This is from your husband.

Sheila Johnson: Yes. And my identity was being stripped. I was losing my power.

And it was just a case, I said, well, OK, once I found out I was pregnant and I had this child, and he died an hour later, there I was, a failure again. I just couldn't do anything right. I couldn't do anything to please him. And this is what I lived with during that 30-year marriage.

Amna Nawaz: Divorcing Bob, selling BET, it launches you into this whole new chapter of your life.

You're now newly empowered, newly extremely wealthy. You build a luxury resort from scratch out in Middleburg, Virginia, and you call it Salamander.

Sheila Johnson: Yes.

Amna Nawaz: Why?

Sheila Johnson: Because, when I bought my farm in Middleburg, I bought it from a man by the name of Bruce Sundlun. And he was a World War II fighter pilot.

And he had been shot down over Nazi-occupied Belgium. His entire unit was captured into a POW camp. He was able to escape. And he went into allied territory of France. The U.S. came to him and they gave him the code name Salamander.

And he says, well, what does the Salamander mean? He says, well, mythically, it's the only animal that can walk through fire and still come out alive. But if you chop off its limbs, they regenerate.

All of that meant so much to me. It really resonated in this part of — that part of my life at the time of going through a divorce and still trying to figure out who I was. It resonated. And I said, can I have that name, Salamander? He said, what are you going to do with it? I said, well, I'm thinking about starting a company and I would like to brand it Salamander, which stands for perseverance, courage and fortitude.

Amna Nawaz: Sheila, you're a philanthropist. You're, I think, the only Black female co-owner of three professional sports teams, including the championship 2019 winning Washington Mystics.

Shout-out to them.

Sheila Johnson: Yes.

Amna Nawaz: What's next? What does this chapter look like for you?

Sheila Johnson: The doors are still starting to open up again. I'd like to get a couple more properties in my collection.

It's just whatever comes towards me. And, instinctively, if it's the right thing, I will embrace it. I just don't want life to be over, because I'm enjoying it more than ever now.

Amna Nawaz: I have enjoyed our conversation so much.

Sheila Johnson: Yes.

Amna Nawaz: Sheila Johnson, thank you so much for being here.

Sheila Johnson: You're so welcome. This was delightful.

Amna Nawaz: The author of the new book "Walk Through Fire."

Sheila Johnson: Thank you.

Amna Nawaz: I appreciate you being here.

Sheila Johnson: Thank you.

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