Entrepreneur and philanthropist Cal Johnson was born to Cupid and Harriet Johnson in Knoxville on October 14, 1844. The Johnson family, slaves of Colonel Pless McClung, lived on the site of the old Farragut Hotel Building at the corner of Gay and Church Streets. In his early teens, Johnson moved to McClung's Campbell Station estate, where he tended his master's horses and developed a lifelong interest in horses.
At the close of the Civil War Johnson found work exhuming bodies from the temporary battlefield graves for reburial in proper cemeteries. As a result of the hard times and lack of economic opportunities associated with the aftermath of war, Johnson turned to alcohol and soon became a destitute drunkard, living on the streets of Knoxville.
Johnson recognized the futility of his life, vowed to stop drinking, and took a job first as a cook, then as a bartender. By 1879 he had saved $180, which he used to lease a building at the corner of Gay and Wall and open a saloon. Reinvesting his money in the business, Johnson soon operated three saloons: Popular Log, Popular Log Branch, and Popular Log Center Branch. His establishments, patronized by the leading men of the era, became the most popular whiskey houses in the city. Johnson operated his saloons in strict accordance with the law: he sold neither to minors, women, nor those who appeared to be intoxicated.
Horses remained Johnson's first love, however, and he acquired an enviable stable of race horses that compared to the best in the state. He attended every major race in Tennessee and the surrounding states. In 1901 he bought the famed mare Lennette at Frankfort, Kentucky, for $6,000. He also owned George Condit, the 1893 Columbian Exposition's champion standard Bred Trotter. Johnson owned the only horse racing track in the city of Knoxville, and the track held regular races until the general assembly outlawed the sport in 1907. Today, Speedway Circle, the site of the track, maintains the original shape.
Although saloons and horses remained Johnson's principal sources of income, he also had other business interests, including vast real estate holdings. In 1906 he donated a house at the corner of Vine and Patton Streets to be used as the first black YMCA building. At the presentation ceremony on May 14, 1906, Mayor S. G. Heiskell proclaimed to the large crowd of African Americans that Johnson's gift represented the largest ever given by a black person to the YMCA.
From 1883 to 1885 Johnson served on the Knoxville board of aldermen. In 1922 Knoxville established the Cal Johnson Park in his honor, and in 1957 the Cal Johnson Recreation Center was erected in the park.
Johnson married twice, but had no children. At the time of his death on April 7, 1925, his estate was estimated at $300,000-$500,000.