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Sam Johnson was determined to succeed despite the odds against him: he was black, raised in the Jim Crow South, and a school dropout.
Johnson’s determination led him to become the first black new car salesman in Charlotte, North Carolina in the 1970s.
At the height of his career, he owned five dealerships that sold a total of 795 cars a month.
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Johnson later sold his dealerships in Charlotte, retired and moved to South Carolina in 2002.
Raised on a plantation
Johnson was born in 1939 to a family of eight siblings in Brickeys, Ark. He said that his family was poor and enslaved, though they did not know it.
Growing up, Johnson said, he remembers living on a plantation and having to get permission to leave or go to school from plantation owner CE Yances, who wanted them to stay and harvest.
Johnson’s two older brothers eventually left the plantation and moved to St. Louis, Missouri.
“He was a typical plantation owner and as long as you did what you had to do and harvested the crops he wanted you to harvest … we thought he treated us well,” Johnson, now 83, told QCity Metro.
When Johnson was 13, his family moved to West Memphis, Arkansas to live on another plantation. There, according to him, they thought they were living in luxury.
They had running water and gas heating; before there was no running water and they used a wood stove.
At the plantation, Johnson picks and chops cotton plants. He stayed there until he was 16 years old. By then, Johnson had fallen behind in school and dropped out altogether.
After leaving the plantation, he started odd jobs like working in a furniture store.
Johnson has been driving since the age of 13, when he lied about his age to get his driver’s license. At the age of 16, he had a car accident.
“I was driving a truck for a furniture company and a white guy ran into the truck I was driving and hit him on the side. When the police came, he said I didn’t file a report, and I said, ‘Yes,'” Johnson recalled.
The clerk wrote a ticket and said he would have to appear in court.
Johnson didn’t 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 in a small used car lot, washing and cleaning cars.
When Jerry Ackerman, the owner of the parking lot, was away from the dealership, customers often asked Johnson about the prices of various cars. Johnson took their information and gave it to Ackerman every time he returned.
The beginning of an “empire”
After two years at the lot, Johnson began taking car deposits and selling cars on other lots.
“Let’s say [a potential buyer] wanted $500 for a car,” Johnson said. “I would sell [the car] for $700, give it [Ackerman] his $500 and keep $200.
Johnson said Ackerman plans to become a new car dealer and wants Johnson to come with him.
He purchased a new car 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 a while, Ackerman came to Johnson and said that the city and the NAACP wanted him to hire black vendors.
“And he said, ‘I don’t know these people down here, but I know you, and I know you’re honest,'” Johnson said, referring to what Ackerman told him. “I’ll make you a salesman.”
At the time, Johnson, then 26, already had a wife and two children to support. Sellers were paid on commission, which may be inconsistent. He wanted a reliable income, so that made him skeptical.
Ackerman promised Johnson he would make at least $400 a week and gave him a new car.
Johnson sold cars at Ackerman’s first dealership – downtown – and became the number one salesman among his eight white colleagues.
After being the number one seller for seven consecutive years, in 1973 Johnson bought his first new car dealership in East St. Louis. This area was predominantly black, poor and high crime.
Johnson was successfully selling Lincoln-Mercury vehicles at the time the company was set to open a store in Charlotte, North Carolina
“They came to me and said, ‘I know you want to get out of this rundown town that you’re in and start somewhere that doesn’t have all the crime and the poor town and stuff,'” Johnson recalled. “That’s how they gave me the opportunity to move to Charlotte, North Carolina, and that’s how I ended up in Charlotte.”
Moving to Charlotte
Before moving to the Queen City in 1974, the 33-year-old Johnson attended a car dealership meeting where he met Randy Boro, who owned Lincoln-Mecury on Independence Boulevard in Charlotte.
Borough turned to Johnson and said, “You know, it’s a shame [that] Ford will put you in a similar position and send you to Charlotte. You can’t survive in Charlotte,’” Johnson recalled.
Borough knew the Charlotte market better than his new competitor, Johnson said, and he didn’t think Johnson would surpass him.
Instead of feeling insecure or scared, Johnson told him, “Now I’m here to stay.”
By 1980, interest rates on cars had increased by 20% and many dealers went out of business.
However, Johnson weathered the recession and even bought Borough in 1983. He bought the dealership for his 24-year-old son, who had recently graduated from dealer school but later died in a motorcycle accident.
Although Boro owned the store, he became one of Johnson’s customers, and the two became distant friends, Johnson said.
By the 1990s, Johnson owned five dealerships; one in Richmond, Va., another in Tupelo, Miss. one in Fayetteville, North Carolina and two in Charlotte.
According to an article published in 1994, Johnson confirmed that he sold 795 cars a month at the five dealerships he owned.
Johnson and one of his brothers also opened a dealership in Baltimore, Maryland.
By 2002, Johnson 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, SC, which he sold in 2015.
“I’ve been honest, I love people and I love God,” Johnson said when I asked what helped make his business successful.
“And I couldn’t afford to fail. 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 my money… and when I moved to Charlotte, I had moved my family, so I couldn’t afford to fail [then]he continued.
Johnson said he also feels that compared to other traders, he is more representative.
“As a dealer, I was one-on-one and never read my phone calls. Back then, dealers didn’t take calls from customers or just random phone calls. They wanted to know who it was, what you wanted and so on,” Johnson said.
“If your five-year-old called me and said, ‘I want to speak to Mr. Johnson,’ I said, ‘Hi.’ If someone had a service problem, I would go out and contact my service manager and the customer to fix the problem. It was just part of my makeup,” Johnson said.
He also noted how the people he hires should be friendly and outgoing.
Johnson still lives in South Carolina and owns the Fayetteville and Tupelo locations, although Johnson’s son, Sam Johnson Jr., 53, manages the Fayetteville dealership.