Robert Johnson: An Entrepreneur in Spirit
April 06, 2015

—by Joi-Anissa Russell

Mr. Johnson in his office at Sears
Mr. Johnson in his office at Sears

Not wanting to be late, I leave my home at 1:40 p.m. and enjoy a relatively quiet ride over to Mr. Bob Johnson’s home on Barton. I check my I-Pod recorder again and ring the doorbell of his town home. A tall, slender gentlemen opens the door and I blurt out, “Hello, Mr. Barton.” Well, honestly, what a great first introduction. “I mean Mr. Johnson.”

Mr. Johnson is very unassuming. He opens the door and smiles sweetly. “May I take your coat, please?” I take a sweeping glance around his front room. The room is very unassuming as well. Oscar Peterson, a Canadian jazz artist, is playing softly in the background. There is a rose scent wafting through the first floor. The neutral colors of the couch and carpet are settling.

Mr. Johnson eases onto one end of a rose colored couch and I onto the other end. He is at ease. He is casually dressed. This is home. These are his treasures. And the interview begins.

Mr. Johnson began his career at the Chicago Housing Authority. Although he has a background in sociology and history, he begins in management at the CHA after attending DuSable High School and Roosevelt College. He meets Rose, and in 1961 they are married. Somewhere in between a marriage and a career, he has two children. Needing and wanting his children to grow up in a diverse, educated community, he moves his family to Evanston in 1972 to Dewey and Oakton and eventually, in 1979, to Barton Street.

It is important to understand that Mr. Johnson is an entrepreneur in spirit. After leaving the CHA, he spent twenty-five years with Sears, Roebuck and Co. in management, working his way up to Vice President of Merchandising. The first and major challenge was one of pioneering.

Article on Mr. Johnson that appeared in Ebony Magazine
Article on Mr. Johnson that appeared in Ebony Magazine

“I started in 1965 when Sears had four African Americans in the executive trainee program and had 4,000 executives. These four were the first. It was a shock for people to see us. The reactions were quite individual. The company did not take a strong stand and just introduced the program. The responses we received were quite insulting and some were very progressive.

“As a buyer, I traveled extensively in Pacific Rim countries and Europe. In the Pacific Rim, I saw the beginning of the industrialization of Asia and saw them emerging as important factors in world commerce. Europe was beginning to lose business to the Pacific Rim and we were winding down exports from primarily Spain and France.”

 It is important for an individual to remain rooted in the community

In a culture that did not necessarily support four African American executive trainees, how, I ask Mr. Johnson, did he manage to achieve his success— thriving professionally and socially?

“I have been asked that question a lot. It is important for an individual to remain rooted in the community that she or he identifies with. The job is not the person. The work community is not home. It is important to maintain your close relationships with friends, family, and your community ties.

“Socially, I always knew I was at work. There was never a point where you could relax and assume that you were in a nonwork environment if engaged in a work-associated activity.”

Packaging Company c. 1990
Packaging Company c. 1990

Retiring in 1990, he and his daughter bought a packaging company in Atlanta, Georgia. While there, they improved upon flexible packaging material for Frito-Lay, Hewlett-Packard, and Proctor & Gamble, among a host of others. You are probably most familiar with this type of packaging for potato chips.

In the interest of pursuing additional technology means for a large customer base, their company moved to Memphis, Tennessee. Mr. Johnson’s goal was to retire within five years after moving to Memphis, leaving the company in his daughter’s capable hands. However, she had different plans and left the company after four years.

I have always been interested in history and our history

Johnson 1“Running a company is a full-time business and sometimes more than full-time,” Mr. Johnson states. After several years of managing the business, Mr. Johnson retired for a second time in 2007 and pursued his love of collecting historical documents. His unwavering dedication to building and having his own business is also apparent in his collection, which includes several authentic maps, slave trade papers, and a number of documents from the early 1700s. Its importance to Mr. Johnson?

“I have always been interested in history and our history. And the present and therefore the future are largely determined by history. So developing a better understanding of what we have gone through as African American people is very important because it helps to explain where we are today and the nature of our current challenges.”

One map from 1776 details the coastline of the Ivory Coast and Ghana, illustrating the various sites where slave castles were built. These slave castles allowed slave traders to come to one location, load their ships with slaves, conduct business, and then set sail for either South America or the Caribbean. In yet another map from roughly the same period, one will see the South Carolinian coast where plantations were built along the river. This allowed the plantation owners to ship their cotton production to the coast and off to textile mills in the North and sometimes England.

Mr. Johnson explains the significance of the maps as if a professor in a lecture hall. “You will see here that many of these points show where ships could be anchored safely and slaves delivered to the plantations.” The earliest of the three maps show how the African tribes fought and secured slaves for their own growth. This type of slave trade between Africans is not what is typically thought of when you hear the word slavery in America.

It is important to note that on a trip to a South Carolina plantation documenting a family’s life in the 1830s, a docent explains the children’s education, their travels, the wealth—but oddly enough, there is no mention of the slaves that kept the home in order. Mr. Johnson says it was as if they were “sanitizing history.” As he notes the exclusion to the docent, she reviews her notes and shares that she is not certain why this information is not included; she points him to the local library for additional information. So you see, these maps and documents are of great importance to Mr. Johnson, they show that a history of slave trade existed and that lives were affected now well into 2010.

“I am certain that there is residual racism today. It is apparent in the prison system where the population is 75 percent men of color and, to be specific, mostly Black men. Somehow the community has not instilled the importance of education. And then African American men are faced with racism in education, the police force and job opportunities. These additional hurdles are truly obstacles to overcome but do not take the responsibility away from Black men, who need to get beyond racism. A difficult task, but it can be done, as many recent examples of successful Black men demonstrate. The struggle must be fought on a higher plane and that is with education.”

When asked if integration has played a role in the destruction of the Black family, Mr. Johnson pauses. “Integration was necessary. It had to happen. However, with integration, Blacks must compete with other Americans as well as globally.” This was not the case in the 1960s. In 2010, the opportunities are there, but the obstacles have grown as competition for jobs has increased. Understanding technology is critical and makes the stakes higher, Mr. Johnson observes.

Mr. Johnson considers each question, reflects, then responds. As a former vice president at Sears, he has seen much good and some challenges in countries around the world. So with authentic slave trade maps, an illustrious career in corporate America, a beautiful home, and great jazz music to settle the soul, what is this man’s greatest accomplishment? He smiles widely and assuredly, “My happy, functional children and grandchildren are my greatest accomplishment.” Considering this response, everything else could be assumed immaterial.


Source: Mr. Johnson was interviewed in his home on Saturday, April 24, 2010, by Joi-Anissa Russell. Images and articles courtesy of Mr. Johnson. The article first appeared in the quarterly Shorefront Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2, Fall 2010.

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