How the 1st Black to have a General Motors franchise ‘sold cars from a briefcase’ because of racism
Albert W. Johnson’s father was a doctor who wanted him to follow in his footsteps. But when Johnson started work as a hospital administrator, he ended up selling cars in St. Louis where he was born. He became a top car salesman but had to sell cars door to door because as an African American, he could not be hired to sell inside a dealership.
It would take him 15 years to get his wish of being a car dealer. He also helped elect Chicago’s first Black mayor and the first African-American president. This is his story.
Born on February 23, 1920, Johnson received his BS degree in business administration from Lincoln University in 1940 and his MS degree in hospital administration from the University of Chicago in 1960. He was an assistant administrator of a teaching hospital in St. Louis in 1954 when he started selling cars part-time. He later moved to an Oldsmobile dealership in Kirkwood, Mo., where he became known as “the man who sold cars from a briefcase,” according to the Chicago Tribune.
Johnson wasn’t allowed on the showroom floor of the dealership he worked for. The owner barred him from doing business on the Oldsmobile premises and asked him to only sell to Blacks. Still, Johnson became the dealership’s top salesman.
“My dad sold cars door-to-door, out of a briefcase,” recalled his son Donald Johnson in an interview in 2010.
Johnson moved to another dealership but wanted his own and had to petition General Motors for 15 years before he finally got a franchise in 1967, becoming the first African American to be given a General Motors franchise. His new car business was “a folding South Side Oldsmobile dealership that he turned around” inside of a year, Sun-Times reported.
“He surrounded himself with good people,” his son told the outlet, adding that even competitors offered his father guidance. “They thought enough of him and his personality and the kind of guy that he was to help him in his business.”
Johnson went on to greater success selling Cadillacs as General Motors handed him a Cadillac dealership in 1971. The following year, he became an independent dealer. According to Chicago Tribune, Johnson sold Cadillacs at a dealership in the South Shore neighborhood and moved it to Tinley Park six years later. In 1994, he sold his dealership.
Besides his interest in entrepreneurship, Johnson was also a philanthropist. After helping elect Chicago’s first Black mayor Harold Washington, he became his adviser on business development issues, charging $1 a year for his services. Johnson was also the first large donor to Barack Obama’s US Senate campaign, contributing $50,000.
“He liked the charismatic approach that Barack had, the humility that Barack had; his character. My dad was real big on character,” Donald Johnson said.
A founder of the PUSH Foundation and a life member of the NAACP, Johnson also made several contributions to schools, hospitals, and charitable organizations. Before his death in 2010 aged 89, he received an honorary doctorate of law from Mary Holmes College and an Honor of Entrepreneurial Excellence from Howard University School of Business Administration.
“Among his many other affiliations include chairman emeritus of the University of Illinois Center for Urban Business, College for Business Administration; board member of LaRabida Children’s Hospital; member of the Executives Club of Chicago, Ingalls Memorial Hospital, the Better Business Bureau, Chicago Tourism Council, Bellwood Bank, and the General Motors Black Dealer Advisory Board,” according to History Makers.
The entrepreneur and philanthropist left behind his wife, Marion; two other sons, Albert Jr. and Antoine; six grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.