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Community remembers Sammy McDowell, pillar of North Minneapolis


A big Black man wearing a black shirt, blue overalls, a beaded necklace and a brimmed hat stands in the doorway of a kitchen, smiling.
Sammy McDowell, owner of Sammy's Avenue Eatery (Photo credit: Bill Cottman)

Sammy McDowell, the owner of Sammy’s Avenue Eatery in North Minneapolis, passed away this weekend. According to his pastor, McDowell – who was known as a regular church-goer – collapsed during Sunday service, and was later pronounced dead at the scene. 


Located at 101 West Broadway Avenue, the sandwich shop and cafe has been a staple of the North Minneapolis community since it opened in 2012. But more than a culinary space, Sammy’s Avenue Eatery evolved into a community resource. During the uprising that followed the murder of George Floyd, neighbors relied on Sammy’s for free food, clothing, and other essential supplies. 


Today community members gathered at the shop to hold space and honor McDowell. His legacy, according to long-time friend Brian Bogan, was the wealth and generosity of his character.


Brian Bogan

“Sammy was really one of a kind, and I obviously get emotional when I think about it. I love him… I've cried so much…” said Bogan. “I talked to him the Sunday before everything happened. I'm grateful that I was able to talk to him, and that I was able to tell him how much I loved him because if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have been able to deal. I was able to tell him how much I’ve appreciated him throughout the years, so I have no regrets, but it's still hard because he was always there. No matter what, when I called him, he was always there. My flesh is going to miss him, but my spirit knows he's in a better place.”


Bogan says he shared a close friendship with McDowell for over 20 years. He says their friendship began at Shiloh Temple Church in Robbinsdale, the same church where McDowell passed. Bogan said the news of his close friend’s death felt like a full circle moment, with their friendship ending right where it began.


“When I was like 19 years old, I was one foot in the church and one foot in the clubs and the streets and all this other stuff. But Sammy, he never judged me based upon where I was, but loved me through it,” said Bogan. “I spent a lot of time with him. He was a great business mind. He was a great friend. He was really adamant about not conforming to this world, but being transformed. He was very spiritual. And no matter what I was going through, he always had a word or song for it.”


Bogan says McDowell was a giver, and that he wanted more for the community than he wanted for himself. He says McDowell carried a spirit of love that extended to all around him. 


That’s an experience that Metro State Professor Shvonne Johnson shares.


“Sammy reflected agape love [the highest form of Christian love]. He personified it. He was a person of faith. He was a person of peace. He was a person who embraced the community and attempted to do the very best he could to walk as an example of what he wanted our community to see and be,” said Johnson. “He also truly believed in economic liberation, and not just a band aid. He believed in the need to create generational wealth. He spread his wings around the life of an entrepreneur. And not for himself, but to create a blueprint and a pathway and mentorship for other people to do the same.” 



A woman stands in front of a sandwich counter smiling at the camera, making a peace sign with her hand. A man in a Kente cloth styled shirt stands behind her, back to the camera.
Professor Shvonne Johnson stands inside Sammy's Avenue Eatery, where community gathered to remember Sammy McDowell. (Photo credit: Jasmine McBride)

Johnson says McDowell mentored her on numerous occasions. 


“One of the things that he always talked about was being the light in the darkness. And that it's hard to do. Especially with some of the negatives that are said about our neighborhood. But he wanted to improve and elevate the neighborhood versus criticizing it,” she said. “And not to mention the countless job opportunities he’s given, to believe in people that most people wouldn't take a chance on. And what came out of it was people starting their own businesses.”


Johnson says her decade-long connection with McDowell began out of the simple desire to support a Black business.


“I would come in here and get my iced coffee every morning at 7:15 a.m. And then at one point, it was just him and his nephew, so I would carve out two or three hours a day and do little stuff. And then, we started to become friends. And in 2015, I left my job formally. And I came in practically full time here with Sammy.”


In hindsight, Johnson says her connection to McDowell was sustained from a true desire to stand by him, and invest in who he was and what he stood for. Which she says will continue with her from here on in remembrance of him. 


Sindel Wilson agrees. Wilson, who is the property manager of the Episcopal Church where Sammy’s Avenue Eatery is located, says McDowell was a breath of fresh air.


"When I first came into this space I already had a rapport with Sammy’s because I lived in the community most of my life, up the street not too far from here. Sammy was super great, super supportive,  and helped me with anything I needed,” recalled Wilson. “You could feel Sammy's energy. He was always helpful, wanting to know how he could show up for you.”


The family is currently raising funds for McDowell’s funeral costs. In the meantime, a memorial is being planned. According to Shiloh Temple Pastor Bishop Richard D Howell Jr, the anticipated visitation date is scheduled for May 3, with a celebration of life on May 4.

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