Among the most heartwarming vignettes in Sheila Johnson’s new memoir, “Walk Through Fire,” is the story behind Middleburg’s now beloved Market Salamander. Sheila, who should be credited as the first black woman billionaire – a fact Forbes and Wikipedia stubbornly refuse to acknowledge – bought the market property on Washington St. in Middleburg in 2001 shortly after divorcing her husband and co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, Bob Johnson. Reeling from the dissolution of her emotionally abusive, 30-year marriage, Sheila moved to Middleburg in 2000 to escape Washington, D.C., in search of a little peace and healing.
With its bucolic surroundings and time-honored traditions, Middleburg delivered that sanctuary, for the most part. There was just this one thing that refused to give her peace: a Confederate flag hanging in the window of the Powder Horn Gun & Antique shop on Middleburg’s main thoroughfare. “I hated seeing that thing. Even just a glimpse of it was enough to put me in a bad mood for the rest of the day.” She knew how the owner might react to a Black woman asking him “to take down that hateful piece of cloth,” so, at first, she decided she’d have to get used to it. Then the love she felt for her new home town and steadily returning sense of self-respect suggested another recourse. She’d just buy the place.
The elegant and meticulously restored market that replaced the gun store was the first opportunity for her new neighbors to experience this remarkably creative woman’s refined sense of taste and decorum. Market Salamander was unearthed from its surrounding shell to become a beautiful, welcoming French-style café and market – the brunch darling of NoVa foodies – AND a harbinger of Sheila’s commitment to quality and luxury that is the foundation of her hospitality empire. The heartbeat of that empire is of course The Salamander Hotel & Spa, and we grow to understand why, as Sheila relates the manner in which she embraced her new hometown.
This is no sugar-coated tale but an honest accounting of a part of Loudoun in the early 2000s that was afraid of any change that might rob it of its historic character. In fact, that character, and Sheila’s interest in preserving it, resonates with the books overarching theme of resilience in the face of considerable adversity.
As she herself puts it, her book is a “memoir of love, loss and triumph” – specially penned to encourage every woman who has ever faced adversity in becoming all she can be. “I truly believe that, in life, things happen for a reason,” she writes. Her childhood struggles, her trying and often demeaning 30-year marriage, the sacrifices she made to found an iconic, Black-owned business, and later the opposition she overcame to fashion her dream company all help to explain why Sheila’s spirit animal is the salamander – which, according to myth, is the only animal who can walk through fire and survive.
Just one suggestion: buy the audio book. Listening to Sheila tell her story in her own words will pierce your heart and make you love this woman like a sister. And, keep an eye on Salamander as it sets the stage for more author spotlights to come.