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Sam Johnson was determined to succeed despite the odds stacked against him: He was Black growing up in the Jim Crow South and had dropped out of school.
Johnson’s determination led him to become the first Black new-car dealer in Charlotte in the 1970s.
At the height of his career, he owned five dealerships that collectively sold 795 cars a month.
Johnson later sold his dealerships, retired and moved to South Carolina in 2002.
Growing up on a plantation
Johnson was born in 1939 into a family of eight siblings in Brickeys, Ark. He said his family was poor and enslaved, although they didn’t know it.
Growing up, Johnson said, he lived on a plantation and had to get permission to leave or go to school from plantation owner C.E. Yances, who wanted them to stay and harvest crops.
Johnson’s two older brothers eventually left and moved to St. Louis, Mo.
“He was a typical plantation owner, and as long as you did what you were supposed to do and harvest the crops that he wanted you to harvest… we thought he treated us well,” Johnson, now 83, told me in a phone interview.
When Johnson was 13, his family moved to West Memphis, Ark., to live on a different plantation. There, he said, they thought they were living in luxury.
They had running water and gas heat; before, there was no running water and they used a wood stove.
Johnson recalled picking and chopping cotton. He stayed there until age 16. By then, he said, he had gotten behind in school and left altogether.
After leaving the plantation, he picked up odd jobs, like working at a furniture store.
Johnson had been driving since age 13, when he lied about his age to obtain his driver’s license. At 16, he got into a car accident.
“I was driving a truck for a furniture company, and a white guy ran into and sideswiped the truck I was driving. When the police came, he said I did not throw a signal on, and I said, ‘I did,’” Johnson recalled.
The officer wrote him a ticket and said he would have to appear in court.
Johnson did not want to go to jail, so before his court date, he fled to St. Louis, where he lived with his siblings for six months.
When he was 17, he started working at a small, used-car lot, washing and cleaning cars.
When Jerry Ackerman, the car lot owner, was away from the dealership, customers would often ask Johnson about the prices of different cars. Johnson took their information and gave it to Ackerman whenever he returned.
The beginning of an ’empire‘
After two years of working at the lot, Johnson began accepting car deposits and selling cars to other lots.
“Let’s say [a potential buyer] wanted $500 for a car,” Johnson said. “I would sell [the car] for $700, give [Ackerman] his $500 and keep $200.”
Ackerman, Johnson said, planned to become a new-car dealer and wanted Johnson to come with him.
He purchased a dealership in downtown St. Louis, and Johnson went with him as his car porter — a person who moves and parks cars.
Ackerman purchased another car dealership in South County, St. Louis, which was predominantly white, in 1965.
After some time, Ackerman came to Johnson and said the city and the NAACP wanted him to hire Black salesmen.
“And he said in these words, ‘I don’t know these people down here, but I know you, and I know you’re honest,” Johnson said, recalling what Ackerman told him. “I’m going to make you a salesman.”
By this time, Johnson, then 26, had a wife and two kids to support. Salesmen were paid through commission, which could be inconsistent. He wanted reliable income, so this made him skeptical.
Ackerman promised Johnson would make at least $400 a week and gave him a new car.
Johnson sold cars at Ackerman’s first dealership location — the inner city — and became the number-one salesman amongst his eight white colleagues.
After being the top salesman seven years in a row, in 1973, Johnson purchased his first new-car dealership in east St. Louis. This area was predominantly Black, poor and high in crime.
Johnson was selling Lincoln-Mercury vehicles around the time the company was set to open a store in Charlotte.
“They came to me and said, ‘I know you want to get out of this dilapidated city that you’re in and start somewhere where you don’t have all the crime and the poor city and stuff,'” Johnson recalled. “So they gave me an opportunity to move to Charlotte, N.C. and that’s how I got to Charlotte.”
Moving to Charlotte
Before moving to the Queen City in 1974, Johnson, 33, attended a car dealers’ meeting, where he met Randy Borough who owned a Lincoln-Mecury on Independence Boulevard in Charlotte.
Borough approached Johnson and said, “You know, it’s a shame [that] Ford would put you in a position like this and send you to Charlotte. You cannot survive in Charlotte,” Johnson recalled.
Borough knew the Charlotte market better than his new competitor, Johnson said, and he didn’t think Johnson would outsell him.
Rather than feeling uncertain or intimidated, Johnson replied, “I’m here to stay now.”
By 1980, the interest rates for cars increased to 20%, and many dealers went out of business.
Johnson, however, made it through the recession and even bought out Borough in 1983. He bought the dealership for his 24-year-old son, who had recently completed dealer training school but was later killed in a motorcycle accident.
Although Borough owned the store’s property, he became one of Johnson’s customers, and the pair became distant friends, Johnson said.
By the 1990s, Johnson owned five dealerships: one in Richmond, Va., another in Tupelo, Miss., one in Fayetteville, N.C., and two in Charlotte.
According to an article published in 1994, Johnson confirmed that he was selling 795 cars a month across the five dealerships he owned.
Johnson and one of his brothers also opened a dealership in Baltimore, Md.
By 2002, Johnson had sold his Charlotte dealerships, retired and moved to South Carolina.
Johnson reflects on his success
In 2005, Johnson returned to work and bought a dealership in Summerville, S.C., that he sold in 2015.
When I asked Johnson what helped his businesses become successful, he said: “I was honest, I love people, and I love God.”
“And I couldn’t afford to fail,” he continued. “When I first started selling cars, I couldn’t fail because I had a wife and two kids. And when I [bought] my first dealership, I had invested all of my money… and when I moved to Charlotte, I had moved my family, so I couldn’t afford to fail.”
Johnson said he also felt that compared to other dealers, he was more personable.
“As a dealer, I was one-on-one, and I never screened my phone calls. Back then, dealers did not take calls from customers or just random phone calls. They wanted to know who it is, what you want and so on,” Johnson said.
“If your 5-year-old kid called me and said ‘I want to speak to Mr. Johnson,’ I said ‘hello.’ If someone had an issue in service, I went out and got with my service manager and the customer to fix the problem. That was just a part of my makeup,” Johnson said.
He also noted how the people he hired had to be friendly and sociable.
Johnson still lives in South Carolina and retains the dealerships in Fayetteville and Tupelo. His son, Sam Johnson Jr., 53, manages the Fayetteville dealership.