Updated: Jul 1, 2021
Written by Hawona Sullivan Janzen, Portrait by Mike Hoyt
Paris Ford and her mother Margie Sudduth Ford are two women who know first hand the power of place. Margie’s entire family relocated to North Minneapolis from Jasper, Alabama in the early 1940’s when Margie was only a toddler. I recently sat down with the pair to discuss their family’s history of home ownership and the life that resulted from it. Theirs is a history filled with risk-taking and unity, a Great Migration success story, in which buying and holding property plays a critical role.
Margie (MSF): My father was stationed in the Philippines during World War II when his sister, their mother, my mother, my younger brother, and I came to Minnesota. Some people went to Chicago or Detroit. My Aunt Sis had always said she would never raise kids in the South, so she followed a friend of hers to Minneapolis. When she got here she called back home and told us “Get here!”
Margie’s aunt painted a picture of a life free from the racism of the Deep South. As word of this spread many family members relocated to pursue their dreams in Minnesota. When they initially arrived, Margie’s family rented apartments in North Minneapolis from Jewish landlords, who they found more willing to rent to new Black arrivals. Eventually all those family members, and others who arrived in the coming years, were able to buy. Used to multigenerational living in Alabama, Margie’s father and his brother purchased two homes on a single lot at 911 Emerson Avenue. Margie’s grandmother had been with the family since Margie was a babe in arms. In the 1950’s when the family purchased a triplex, and the grandmother relocated to her own home, Margie chose to go with her. Her parents were never more than a few blocks away.
The tradition of close living continued for them. As other Sudduths matured and sought housing of their own they all chose to do so in the same community. Colfax Avenue, Emerson Avenue, Sheridan Avenue: as family members purchased single family and multi-family properties throughout the area, Margie’s family footprint expanded, creating a circle of safety and trust from which Margie, and later, Paris greatly benefitted.
Paris (PF) We had Sheridan on lock. I can remember walking down Sheridan Avenue and knowing I had at least one family member in every block for at least 6 blocks.
The comfort of this life never left the mind of Paris. After graduating college, and living for a time in Atlanta, Paris returned to Minnesota to live and purchased her Vincent Avenue home directly from the family who lived there in 2003. Her aunt lived just across the way and spoke with the neighbors frequently. When the owners died and their daughter wanted to sell, Paris knew it was the perfect place to start her homeowner journey. The City of the Lakes Land Trust offered homebuyer classes and helped her to locate financing.
Many years earlier, in 1977, Margie and her husband had chosen to purchase a gorgeous Craftsman style duplex on Irving Avenue with a male cousin and his wife. Both men were veterans and used the loan programs available to them to finance the purchase. Margie had never wanted to live anyplace other than the Northside. She had walked past the building since she was a child. When she saw the beamed ceilings and exquisite woodwork inside, it reminded her of the home she had grown up in and knew immediately it was where she wanted to live. After Margie’s husband died, the cousin continued to look after Margie and help with chores. The families stayed in the home for more than 40 years. Eventually Margie continued the family tradition of co-housing by moving in with Paris. The two have lived together for the last three years.
While living amongst family in the Northside offered protection from some discrimination, Margie and Paris both recall warnings from family about moving or even visiting the nearby Northeast Minneapolis. It was geographically very close to their community, but culturally and racially it was a much different place- one that was not welcoming to Black people-especially after dark.
MF People always told us to stay out of Northeast, so we did.
The Ford family’s life in North Minneapolis and the Moore family’s life in South Minneapolis are a study in contrasts. While the Moores’ neighbors would not speak to them for years, the Fords had no such problem in their community. Even as many Jewish families were selling and moving to the suburbs Paris has fond memories of playing with Jewish kids, and no memories of experiencing racial intolerance by their hands. Perhaps this can be attributed to the lack of racial covenants in the Northside. Around the same time the Sudduths were migrating North then Minneapolis mayor Hubert Humphrey was working hard to fight housing discrimination—especially covenants. Jewish families had also suffered from the prejudices of the North. While it is not possible to know exactly what role Humphrey’s efforts played in the magical childhoods both women recall experiencing in their close-knit community, one must also assume some of this was the benefit of living amongst people who understand the fangs of racism. Whatever the reason, this good life was most assuredly enriched by the Sudduth’s and Ford’s deliberate work to stay together. There is a lot to be learned from community. Even in difficult times, there is safety in numbers.
Talk about it:
What resonated with you from this story? What moments can you relate to?
Have a conversation about safety and the idea of safety in numbers...who do you think feels safe in your neighborhood? Who doesn't? Why?
What do others do to/with/for you that makes you feel safe? What do others do to/with/for you that makes you feel unsafe?
Who supports you to reflect on your notions of safety and tie your very personal experiences of feeling safe or unsafe to larger systems of discrimination, entrenched racism, white supremacy, segregation, and other powerful systems that surround us all?
Hawona Sullivan Janzen is a Twin-Cities based multidisciplinary artist who believes that art is the only thing that can save us from ourselves. She is a writer, composer, improvisational jazz singer and visual artist. Co-founder of Witness Writing, a free North Minneapolis based creative writing program, and the chair of Literary Witnesses, a 20 year old poetry reading series of Plymouth Congregational Church. Her writing has been featured on National Public Radio, as well as publications by Sister Black Press and Coffee House Press that developed into a jazz opera at the Soap Factory Gallery in Minneapolis. Hawona has received grants from the McKnight Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, and the Minnesota State Arts Board. She is currently at work on two public art projects: “The Rondo Family Reunion: a Public Art Lawn Sign project featuring photographs and poetry featuring the people of Saint Paul’s Rondo Community, and "Love Letters for the Midway" a project featuring stories of love and admiration for her Hamline-Midway community.
Mike Hoyt is a professional artist in Minneapolis, MN. His creative practice includes drawing, painting, graphic storytelling, network technology, public participation, and community land stewardship. He has participated in projects and exhibitions locally, nationally and abroad. He has received awards from the Minnesota State Arts Board, a Northern Lights.mn Art(ists) on the Verge Fellowship, a Jerome Visual Artist Fellowship, and a McKnight Visual Artist Fellowship. He is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Leader.