Suggs likes to cast herself as post-racial, or color-blind anyway, but race has defined her life from the start. Suggs’s parents moved her and her three brothers and two sisters north, from Mississippi to Milwaukee, in the early fifties, when Suggs was 3 years old. Willie only learned a few years ago from an uncle that they had left Mississippi because of a spate of lynchings. “I remember asking why we moved,” she says, “and my parents never gave us a straight answer.”
In Milwaukee, the Suggses were one of just a few black families on their street. Willie’s father, a college dropout who worked in an aircraft-components factory, had dark skin, but her mother was light enough to appear white. One white couple on their block moved shortly after their son fell in love with Suggs’s sister; Suggs says it was because her sister was black. A schoolmate once called her mother white, and Suggs was horrified. “I said, ‘My mother’s white?!’ And I ran home and said, ‘Mom! Mom!’ Somehow being white was this evil thing?” Suggs’s parents tended to discourage Willie and her siblings from seeing the world in racial terms, almost to the point of denial. She grew up determined to live as though race were irrelevant. “Racism is stupid,” she says. “The whole thing is stupid.”
When Suggs moved to New York, in 1972, her parents expressly discouraged her from moving to Harlem; they didn’t think the neighborhood was safe. Instead, she found an apartment on the East Side. In her building, white women would see her in the elevator and ask her if she had a free day to clean their apartments. “Oh, I was not a happy camper,” Suggs says. “They thought I was the maid.” A few years later, she moved to Hell’s Kitchen, where white guys would jingle the change in their pockets and ask her if she was working that night. “I’m thinking, I don’t need this in my life. From a maid to a hooker?” She laughs. “I was a lot smaller then, but I didn’t look like anybody’s hooker.”
In 1974, Suggs married a man named Victor Crichton, who was twenty years older than she. “He was very bright, but he had issues,” she says. “Everything came down to, ‘If I don’t get this job, it’s because I’m black.’ And I said, ‘I can’t take this. This is crazy. It’s not all about race.’ It’s all about race if you make it all about race.” After just a few years, the couple divorced. In court documents, which Suggs won’t comment on, she accused Crichton of attacking her at one point. Court documents also indicate that Suggs was briefly treated as an inpatient at Four Winds psychiatric hospital in Westchester at around that time. Suggs won’t comment on this, either.
Suggs attended a graduate program in history at Columbia and worked days at ABC, in a newswriting training program. At ABC, Suggs spent years working to be made a field producer, but no such job materialized. In 1984, she filed a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint and later a lawsuit accusing the network of not promoting her because she was black. But ABC produced an internal memo suggesting that Suggs’s performance, not her skin color, was the reason she never moved up. In the memo, a producer named Howard Enders wrote that “deception, manipulation, half-truths, and an inordinate amount of second-guessing and backbiting are devices she uses quite liberally.” The case was eventually settled under sealed terms. But even today, Suggs maintains that her presence at the network had “pissed off some of the nonblack people.”
Suggs discovered Harlem, and the real-estate business, in 1984, the same year she filed her EEOC complaint. She’d always been interested in homes and home buying, she says. When she was a girl growing up in Milwaukee, her father used to take her and her brothers and sisters on long Sunday drives up Lakeshore Drive, stopping now and then to crash open houses. “We’re all a bunch of idiot house freaks.” When the rent went up on her one-bedroom apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, she decided to look for a place to buy. Priced out of much of Manhattan, she noticed an ad in the Amsterdam News (few Harlem properties were advertised in the Times then) for an entire townhouse, at 412 West 145th Street. The price was just $50,000; the monthly payment of mortgage, taxes, and insurance combined was lower than what she paid in rent—and the tenants brought in an extra $1,500 a month. “I said, ‘This is ridiculous!’ I said, ‘This house is too cheap! How can you buy a 3,800-square-foot functioning building for $50,000? That is stupid.’ ” (She still owns the building; today, it could easily sell for $2 million.)