The first black billionaire – Robert Louis Johnson

By February 10, 2020 News, Personal Profiles

For the first time ever, in 2001 a black person appeared on the exclusive billionaires club list as published by Forbes.

Robert L Johnson was born on April 8, 1946, in Hickory, Mississippi to Edna (teacher) and Archie Johnson (carpenter).  The family moved to Illinois when Johnson was a child and it was here that he graduated from the University of Illinois with a bachelor’s degree in social studies in 1968. Four years later (1972), he was a master’s degree in public affairs recipient from Princeton University.

Johnson, who is proud of his beginnings worked as a paperboy early in his life and commends this job for the training it gave him in waking up early and planning (  newspapers had to be delivered between 6 – 7 a.m.) and how to run his own business ( he had to sell subscriptions).

After graduating from Princeton, Robert L Johnson found a job in Washington, D.C, as Public Affairs director, a job that would mark his influential role in the television industry. Around the same time, he also worked as the director of communications for the Washington, D.C. office of the National Urban League. He later became vice president of government relations at the National Cable and Television Association. In 1979, Johnson and his wife Sheila founded Black Entertainment Television (BET), the first cable network targeting the African-American market. It was launched in January 1980, initially broadcasting for two hours a week. It became a fully-fledged channel in 1983. In 1991, BET became the first African American-owned company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The network has continued to grow since that time, reaching tens of millions of homes and expanding to include other traditional and digital channels. 

In 1998, Johnson and Liberty Media bought all outstanding shares of the company, giving Johnson 42% of the company.

In 2000, Viacom announced plans to purchase BET and the sale was finalized the following year and Johnson’s majority stake earned him more than $1 billion, making him the richest African American in the United States at that time as well as the first African-American billionaire. Johnson continued to be the company’s chairman and CEO until 2006.

In 2002, Robert L. Johnson became the first black U.S. principal owner of a North American major-league sports franchise (the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats),  along with rapper Nelly and NBA legend and current majority owner Michael Jordan. In 2003, he completed a deal with the city for a $265 million arena that was to open in time for the 2005-2006 season.

In 2010, he sold his majority stake to Michael Jordan in a $275 million bid due to a steady decline of the team’s value and an annual loss of tens of millions of dollars. Prior to this, Jordan had been a minority stakeholder.

Robert’s marriage which happened from 1969 came to an end in 2002. The couple, who co-founded BET, divorced a year after selling the network to Viacom. They have two children. Sheila Johnson received one of the largest documented settlements in United States history and subsequently married the judge who presided over the divorce proceedings.

In 2006, Johnson founded Our Stories Films with partner Harvey Weinstein. The company focuses on family-friendly movies intended for African-American audiences. In 2011, Our Stories released the romantic-comedy feature Jumping the Broom.