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Robert L. Johnson, the first African-American executive at Sears

Roosevelt Review: Executive Decision - Robert L. Johnson

"We were taught that while racial discrimination made things difficult, it did not make things impossible."

Posted: 04/14/2011

Robert L Johnson, Roosevelt alum and pioneering African-American business personIn 1965, Robert L. Johnson, a Roosevelt University graduate with a degree in sociology, did something that's commonplace today.  He applied for a job in the management training department at Sears Roebuck and Company, hoping to eventually become one of the firm's 4,000 executives.  The twist is that Johnson is African-American and not a single one of those 4,000 executives was African-American.

During my interview, I asked the man how he explained that fact. The guy looked at me and said, ‘Well, we never really thought about it. We never really thought it was a problem.’"

Download the Spring 2011 issue of the Roosevelt Review. [PDF]

Until major forms of discrimination were outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many corporations, including Sears, simply ignored qualified minority candidates for key jobs. That historic law opened doors for Johnson and other African-Americans who had the drive and perseverance to succeed in a world controlled by whites.

Johnson, who would get the management training job and 14 years later become the first African American vice president of Sears, has spent much of his life fighting the odds and overcoming challenges. He’s had two successful careers and was appointed to the Board of Directors of the St. Louis Federal Reserve. He’s currently pursuing his hobby of collecting original historic documents on slavery, taking continuing education courses, chairing the Chicago Jazz Orchestra and serving as an honorary trustee of the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut.

Now 75 years old, Johnson is a Roosevelt University honorary trustee and a former member of the Alumni Board of Governors. He grew up on Chicago’s South Side in the late 1940s at a time when help-wanted ads frequently stated that "Negroes need not apply." His mother pushed him to acquire as much education as he could and not let bigotry stand in the way. "We were taught that while racial discrimination made things difficult, it did not make things impossible. Our segregated neighborhood was made up of black teachers, doctors and lawyers."

After graduation from DuSable High School and Herzl Junior College, Johnson went to the University of Illinois in Champaign, which he soon discovered was not the right school for him. "I didn’t like the university," he said bluntly during an interview in his Evanston, Ill., home. "It was very large and very prejudiced. For the first time in my life, I felt poor."

Johnson transferred to Roosevelt University, which turned out to be a perfect fit. Pointing to Roosevelt’s small classes and supportive environment, he said the differences between Roosevelt and Illinois were dramatic.

At Roosevelt, he studied under one of the nation’s premier sociologists, St. Clair Drake, who taught at the University for 23 years and was the author of the award-winning book Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City. "Professor Drake was not just a teacher," Johnson recalled. "He helped and encouraged students and knew how to bring out the best in us. He didn’t stand behind his impressive credentials."

Following two years in the Army at Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo., and five years as an assistant housing manager with the Chicago Housing Authority, Johnson applied to Sears. Based on his prior management experience with the CHA and good scores on aptitude tests, he was hired as one of the first African-American management trainees at Sears and assigned to the company’s store at 63rd Street and Halsted Avenue in Chicago.

That job was the beginning of a 25-year career at the giant retailer, during which time he had 11 different positions. "Bob had a lot of fire in his belly," said Chuck Harrison, his long-time friend and co-worker. "He realized he was in a hostile environment at Sears, but he was tough and could engage in a conflict and come out a winner.

"I knew I was a guinea pig," Johnson said. "I also sensed that it would not be easy, because the change of attitude that allowed this opportunity to come for me and the other management trainees was not universal. I wondered how much support we were going to receive once we got out of sight of the senior guys who implemented the new policy.

Johnson’s first few years at Sears were the most difficult. One time he was not offered a promotion because the hiring manager didn’t believe a black person should travel to cities across the country representing the corporate office. When he asked administrators in the human resources department whether this was the manager’s opinion or company policy, they never answered the question, but agreed to move him to another department.

As the years went by, Johnson’s abilities and accomplishments were recognized with promotions to increasingly demanding jobs. And when the Sears Tower (now Willis Tower) opened in 1974, he was one of the first to move into the building as a buyer in the shoe department.

In 1979, Johnson, whose career had become an inspiration to many minority employees at Sears, was named one of the firm’s 20 vice presidents and the first African-American VP in the company’s 86-year history. Responsible for all the buying departments for men’s apparel, he had a sales budget of approximately $1 billion and traveled the world looking at the latest styles, materials and manufacturing processes.

"Sears was not a high fashion leader," said Johnson. "We were after the heavy volume items, although we still had to have the right colors and the right cuts."

Johnson’s steady accomplishments not only attracted the attention of Sears, but the media as well. "For someone who has made it to the top, Robert L. Johnson certainly doesn’t fit the ruthless ‘head honcho’ image," Ebony magazine wrote in a profile of him in 1978. "He strives to maintain a low profile and jokingly refers to himself as a ‘closet success.’"

"I enjoy the fruits of my labor (like a 26-foot Columbia sloop named Caprice and family vacations to Egypt and Greece)," he told the magazine, "but I don’t perform my job for the glory. I do it for the sense of accomplishment."

By the age of 55, having grown weary of Sears, Johnson voluntarily retired to pursue an entirely different, but no less challenging, business opportunity. He formed Johnson Bryce, Inc., a minority-owned firm headquartered in Memphis, Tenn., that prints and laminates packaging for food and other consumer products.

"I went from one side of the desk to the other," he said. "Instead of being with a big company, I was a small company (140 employees) calling on big companies like Frito-Lay and Proctor & Gamble. I would say my experience with Sears helped me to understand what their particular needs and pressures were. And that probably helped in making the company successful."

Being a minority-owned printing company opened doors, but it never gave him the order. "It had no bearing whatsoever in negotiating a selling price or the expectations of quality. We were small and had to be competitive with much larger companies," Johnson said.

His original plan was to sell the company in five years and retire at the age of 60, but he wound up working until 70 when he finally sold it to another entrepreneur.

Johnson’s business career is over now, but he still finds plenty of activities to keep busy. He take classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Northwestern University (last fall his course was on Skepticism), goes sailing with his friend Harrison, something they have been doing for 37 years, and acquires original court documents showing that slavery was integrated into American culture politically and economically.

"Several years ago, I became concerned that our history was being sanitized," he said, explaining why he collects documents on the topic of slavery. "People tend to forget that black people came to America to work as slaves and that slavery was in America when the decision was made to fight for independence."

Returning to the issue of prejudice, which has been part of his entire life, he pointed out that the United States began with a contradiction: that all men are created equal. "This conflict has existed and exasperated the nation from the beginning," he said.

"Unfortunately, it isn’t any less obvious today."