In her new book, Walk Through Fire, Sheila C. Johnson tells the dramatic story behind the founding of the Salamander Collection
Sheila C. Johnson needed a change. It was 1996, and the cofounder of BET (Black Entertainment Television) with her then-husband, Robert Johnson, was fighting through a deep depression. Her marriage had been rife with emotional abuse and infidelity for years, she was grieving the loss of a child, and she had been unceremoniously fired from BET. Her husband forcing her out of the network’s day-to-day operations was a blow for Johnson, who was seen as BET’s conscience, as she advocated for and created programming like Teen Summit, on which Black teenagers discussed teen pregnancy, the war on drugs, and other issues that directly affected them.
“I felt like we squandered an opportunity to bring forth the African American voice in an important way, not just through music videos and award ceremonies,” Johnson says. “BET needed to make a statement and plant itself in the American soil as the real voice of African-American issues. There could have been more of a balance.”
At one point, physical stresses came to compound the emotional ones for Johnson: She was bucked from and trampled by a horse, resulting in broken ribs and a collapsed lung, and just a few months later she slipped and broke her tibia and shattered her ankle. During some of her darkest days, she sought respite from her Washington, D.C., home in the scenic countryside between The Plains and Middleburg, Virginia, where her daughter, Paige, was in the process of training to become a competitive equestrian.
“I was at such a crossroads in my life, and I needed to get out of D.C.,” Johnson recalls. “One day, when I was traveling back and forth with my daughter past a farm with an amazing view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I said to myself, ‘This is where I want to live.’” She purchased the 168-acre farm and 19th-century stone home, intending to make it her residence—and unknowingly took the first step toward creating the Salamander Collection.
Today, Johnson is CEO of the largest African–American–owned luxury hotel company in the country. This year, she’s celebrating the 10th anniversary of the opening of her first property, Salamander Middleburg, and last month she released a memoir, Walk Through Fire (Simon & Schuster). In the book, she details her early years as a violin prodigy in Illinois and the heartbreak of her father’s sudden abandonment of their family; becoming the first Black female billionaire after the $3 billion sale of BET to Viacom in 2000; and her current role as a hospitality maven and the only Black woman to have a principal shareholder stake in three professional sports teams (the Washington Capitals, Mystics, and Wizards). “I have no regrets whatsoever,” she says. “I can’t dwell on regrets, because I know things happen for a reason. The fight that I went through made me stronger, and I feel as though people who don’t go through adversity never grow.”
I meet Johnson one early summer afternoon at Salamander Middleburg. Prior to our interview, I sit in the resort’s living room and marvel at how it really does feel like I’m not in a hotel lobby, but rather in the home of a family friend (granted, one with a very nice home). I watch as a toddler, brow knitted in concentration, slowly pulls himself up from a crawling position and takes a couple of steps on the soft rug. The adults around him all cheer. Through the window, I can see people on the back patio sipping cocktails and looking out over the sweeping 340-acre property. It’s idyllic.
In the library, Johnson—looking relaxed and regal in an A-line dress and blazer—tells me her goal was to create a beautiful sanctuary that feels like a home away from home for guests. “Everyone always tells me they know when they’re at a Salamander property by our service and by the way we treat them,” she says. “I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I see the same people who say that they’re only going to come to Salamander properties, because they feel comfortable, they don’t feel threatened, and they don’t feel like they shouldn’t be there.”
Salamander, which comprises seven resorts across the U.S. and the Caribbean, prides itself on its diverse clientele and its distinct approach to hospitality. The brand is grounded in Johnson’s lived experience as a Black woman in the highest levels of business, and her personal preference for inclusiveness over exclusive luxury. Like any person in business, she recognizes that the bottom line is important, but so is accepting every single guest (and the local community) at each property.
“I call it the double bottom line,” she says. “I want to have the balance of being able to experience and welcome everyone that comes through our doors without sacrificing the success, excellence, and quality of what we have here. We also make sure to reach out to the community and have them involved in our mission of the hotel. We let them know that we are here for them.”
For Johnson, the name of the resort collection represents the journey to success. While debating how to make the Middleburg farm her home back in the ’90s, she learned that it had previously been owned by former governor of Rhode Island and World War II hero Bruce Sundlun. A bomber pilot, Sundlun had been shot down over Nazi-occupied Belgium and was the only member of his 10-man B-17 crew to escape. (Five perished, while four were taken as prisoners of war.) He traveled into France on foot and by bicycle, then joined the French resistance and continued fighting through the end of the war. His French comrades gave him the code name “Salamander,” after a European legend that says the amphibian can walk through fire and survive—to this day, the animal is revered in France—and he later christened his farm with the same name.
“I love that story so much that I’ve adopted it into my lifestyle brand and everything that I do,” says Johnson, whose book title is also a reference to the salamander myth. “When I first got into the hotel business, everyone asked me, ‘Why Salamander?’ I tell them that story, and they understand that it stands for perseverance, courage, fortitude, and excellence. That is what my employees live by, and it’s what they work for. It’s the Salamander experience, and it’s our value system.”
Johnson came to feel comfortable fairly quickly after setting down roots in rural Virginia, but there was one eyesore that bothered her every time she drove through Middleburg. On the main thoroughfare, Washington Street, there was an antique gun shop with a giant Confederate flag hanging in the window. For months, she tried to ignore it, but it bothered her so much that she ended up offering well above the asking price to purchase the building. She went on to transform the space into a gourmet shop and café, Market Salamander.
The purchase helped Johnson realize that she had what it took to help revive the flagging town. Next, she funded a new performing arts center—something the whole community could benefit from—at a private K–8 school. While that and the market were well received, not all of the locals were on board when Johnson purchased the land that was to become Salamander Middleburg. Racially charged protest signs (“Don’t BET Middleburg”) were posted around the area, and death threats were even sent to Salamander Farm.
“Call me naive or whatever, but I thought racism was gone,” she says.
“The lesson I learned was that it really hadn’t gone away.” After she and her daughter were verbally attacked in two separate incidents, Johnson hired a private security team. “It was scary,” she remembers. “I thought my divorce was scary; no, this was scary, because my life was threatened.”
Through all of the personal attacks, she focused on her vision for both the resort and the town, slowly winning over hearts and votes after agreeing to fund the construction of a high-functioning wastewater plant that would support both town residents and the new resort. It wasn’t the sexiest solution, but it gave everyone what they needed.
“It has been a long journey to do this, and I won by one vote,” she says with a chuckle. Although she breezily summarizes the experience now, in Walk Through Fire the scene roils with drama. Over several town meetings, Middleburg residents passionately gave their opinions both for and against the resort—sometimes screaming at each other as Johnson sat silently, trying to maintain her composure. When the final vote was given in favor of the resort, she burst into tears.
“I’m the salamander, and I don’t give up,” she tells me. “I persevere, and if I had given up this fight, I don’t know what would have happened to this town that I love. I don’t give up on the things I really believe in and have a vision for. I will find a way to get it done.”
Her achievements likely exceed what she could have dreamed back in 2013. What began as one equestrian-inspired resort in Middleburg has grown into the seven-property Salamander Collection, which spans from the Rocky Mountains to Montego Bay. Looking to hit the slopes? Head to the Aspen Meadows Resort in Colorado. Prefer to relax in the shade of a swaying palm tree? Try Half Moon in Jamaica, or the Aurora Anguilla Resort & Golf Club.
Aside from the obvious luxury, the collection has earned a reputation for hosting vibrant cultural events, such as The Family Reunion at Salamander Middleburg, a food- and joy-filled weekend that celebrates diversity within the hospitality industry. Chef and author Kwame Onwuachi, who is set to open a new restaurant at Salamander Washington DC next year, partners in the festival. “We bring 40 of the top African American chefs here, and it sells out every year,” Johnson says. “You’d be surprised that it’s not just all 800 Black folks, but a smattering of white
folks too! It’s so loud, joyful, and full of laughter.”
Indeed, events like this have helped Salamander draw diverse crowds—an accomplishment other luxury hotel brands struggle to recreate. “This is really something the hospitality industry has to face,” Johnson says. “Executives from other hotel brands come here for meetings, and they’re dumbfounded at the diversity throughout all of our hotels. They’re shocked.”
It was Johnson’s experience in entertainment—in particular, her involvement in sports—that reinforced the importance of bringing people together through hospitality. “Sports are a common ground where people, regardless of their politics or their ethnicity, are comfortable inside of an arena together,” she says. “I bring that mindset to my hotel, and it has become my mantra.”
Johnson pauses and looks around the room at people sitting and chatting. She smiles. “I make sure that everyone who comes to my hotels feels really comfortable, and when I’m in town I will go to each table and say, ‘I’m so happy to have you here.’”