Don Samuels: The Great Black Hope?

Can Don Samuels heal what ails the North Side and Twin Cities’ race relations in one fell swoop?

Don Sameuls: The Great Black Hope?
Photo by Craig Bares

If you’re a Mpls.St.Paul reader—likely white, likely socially concerned—then Don Samuels has a message for you: Come to north Minneapolis and serve. If you’re the sort of white person who wants to help the city’s poorest—and most crime-ridden— region but is afraid of being called a racist, the Jamaican–born minister says that’s OK. He refuses to let white institutions bear all the guilt for the degradation of the North Side, calling out the predatory clergymen, irresponsible parents, and mau-mauing opportunists in the black community. We’re all sinners, says the ordained Baptist minister—but if we openly acknowledge our deficiencies, we can move forward together.

Don Samuels has more than a pulpit: He has a seat on the Minneapolis City Council representing its blackest precincts. While many in north Minneapolis and elsewhere see a combination of John McCain and Barack Obama—the Straight Talk Express leavened with the Audacity of Hope—others say Samuels is more like Al Sharpton in a mirror, a demagogue whose primary goal is to curry favor with whites. Even today, Ron Edwards, cochair of the Minneapolis Police Community Relations Council, says simply, “He has a problem with his affection for black people.”

By refusing to play the victim card (in a mostly white city), Samuels finds himself on some mayoral shortlists should his friend R. T. Rybak not run in 2009. His indelible outspokenness trumps any political ambition, however, as he builds bridges even while others burn.

Don Samuels works weekends. One Saturday, he climbs aboard a former Metro Mobility van and leads a tour acquainting two dozen geographers and liberal churchgoers with the North Side’s simultaneous degradation and rehabilitation. Still trim at fifty-seven, with closely cropped hair only now showing gray, Samuels, dressed in a casual suede jacket, upscale pullover and running shoes, and stonewashed jeans, looks like the toy-industry manager he once was. Outside, along the streets of his own Jordan neighborhood, a block with four consecutive boarded houses gives way to one where crime has plummeted since a dealer-infested convenience store was closed.

Even though he speaks in a bouncing Jamaican lilt, Samuels’s words have a touch of acid, and not just for people his own skin color. He reels off statistics about our willingness to accept north Minneapolis as a dumping ground: “Did you know that 48 percent of this neighborhood is under eighteen and we also have the highest concentration of sex offenders?” Motoring down a stretch of Lyndale that Samuels says is scarred by narcotics peddling, he notes four nearby black churches, adding bitterly, “You’d think four churches could get together and stop the drug dealing here twenty-four hours a day.”

On Sunday, Samuels finds himself in the pulpit—at southeast Minneapolis’s cozy Minnehaha United Church of Christ, where he gives the sermon. The fifty or so listeners—nearly all white—can’t help but be mesmerized by a homily dappled with cackles, belly laughs, and two varieties of giggles: a self-deprecating “he-he-he” and a devilish coda to statements Samuels knows are controversial. His voice steadily rises in timbre toward a passionate point, then stops dead and calms after it is made. The voice urges them toward a vision of a better future—if only they will take the time to care. For example, he tells churchgoers, “one of the biblical interpretations of the original Hebrew and Greek text which we call ‘righteousness’ is really translatable as justice.” Then he adds, “We tend to prefer the righteousness part of it, because it demands less of us.”

Devilish giggle.

Samuels recounts recent efforts by sixteen 13th Ward congregations—black and white—to jointly help the North Side address its problems. When the groups first met together and shared their concerns, he says, blacks worried “Will white people let us lead?” and whites feared “making a mistake and being called racist.” The differences, he says, are being bridged with “honest dialogue,” and he challenges those at Minnehaha UCC to “go where the violence happened” and join the “solidarity of the communities [to] address this problem that has been relegated to one geographic location and primarily minority people.”

Even to a secular observer, the moment is inspirational, more practical than pious, and closer to home than to the heavens.

Reverend Michael O’Connell is rector of the Basilica of Saint Mary and pastor of the North Side’s 450-family Church of the Ascension. “Don’s the best thing that’s happened to the North Side in a long time,” O’Connell says. “He obviously cares deeply for people. He understands the biggest issue is safety. But more than anybody I know, Don has been able to bring people into the North Side and get them engaged—with their personal time as well as their connections in the broader community and financial assistance. A lot of that adds up to programming for kids. That’s desperately needed, especially when the money stopped flowing from the federal government.”

Samuels has made something of a cottage industry out of racial outreach. Four years ago, Samuels, Kevin Reich, and southwest Minneapolis activist Michelle Martin created the Peace Foundation, which—in addition to sponsoring the monthly Saturday bus trips—stages North Side “Peace Games,” street-level barbecues, art crawls, block parties, and “Peace Balls” that draw prominent and proletarian Twin Citians for volunteerism and fun. (Samuels stepped down as president when his opponent and some community members complained that corporate donations to the foundation could be considered favors for the council member. Don’s wife, Sondra, now has the title.)

Since being elected to the council Samuels has also formed a private business, the Institute for Authentic Dialogue, which is led by his wife and local author Jon Odell. So far, Don says, the trio has consulted with a dozen corporations whose executives “call and say, ‘I’m having problems keeping black people or people of color at my company, and I don’t know what’s going on.’ And basically our feeling is he knows what’s going on, but just can’t deal with it. We didn’t want to fuss around trying to transform employees while the bosses are so uncomfortable with race. So we go in with these executives, top management folks, and we demonstrate the conversation. Between Jon and me, we both demonstrate a raw conversation on race.”

Odell is well suited to the task, Samuels adds. “Jon is a Southerner who grew up on the other side of the civil rights movement. He’s the first white guy who told me he grew up racist. All of my white friends look at me like ‘Where are all the racists? Nobody in my family is one. I’ve never met one. Aren’t those people evil?’ ”—giggle—“And so when you meet a white guy who can tell you [he’s racist], you want to hug him! Together, we encourage the executives to mine their memories and their attitudes and come up with the questions and statements they have been suppressing for years. And we create a safe space for them to do that.”

Politics has no safe space, and as an elected official, Samuels’s “authentic dialogue” has alienated blacks who say he cannot speak for them. During his 2005 council race, Samuels told a community forum that his Jamaican slave ancestors “got a leg up” working in the “big house” rather than the fields because they saw the masters’ families doing homework, reading books, and taking piano lessons. He said that he and Sondra wanted their Jordan neighborhood home to provide big house–style enrichment for neighborhood children. The inelegant plantation metaphor and artless noblesse oblige led to opponent Natalie Johnson Lee’s campaign slogan, which decorated T-shirts and literature: U can’t LEAD the people if you don’t LOVE the people. The symbolism dogs Samuels.

Reverend Jerry McAfee of the North Side’s New Salem Missionary Baptist Church, an activist who has battled Samuels over the years, says, “He’s made the right moves for the white community, but he hasn’t courted the black community en masse in the same way. When you make the statements that you make—dang! Whether you meant it or not, it’s insulting. You tell that to some people like my grandmother, who was born on a plantation. Her twin brother was killed by one of the overseers. Talk about some big house and stuff, that ain’t appealing to them.”

By way of explanation, Samuels, who was ordained a few years ago, says a meaningful part of his seminary work was learning about the Twelve Steps of alcoholism recovery. “This is the paradigm: I am an alcoholic; I am a racist. I have to stand up and say I was richer than some of the people in my community, we did have some maids, we did have a lighter complexion. I have to confess those things because then I can look at you and hold you accountable.”

Some wonder, though, whether he hasn’t let Mayor R. T. Rybak off the hook. Though Samuels is not one of city hall’s policy wonks, he backs Rybak on almost every economic and policing issue: He quickly supported the mayor’s nomination of Tim Dolan for police chief, even though no minorities were seriously considered.

Hitching a ride on Rybak’s coattails is not the most popular move on the North Side, where crime has climbed since the mayor’s 2001 election. And even though Rybak won reelection in 2005 with 61 percent of the vote, he lost Samuels’s 5th Ward. Ralph Remington—whose 2005 election to Uptown’s 10th Ward made him the council’s only other African American—recalls attending a black scholarship celebration where “at least ten to fifteen people came up to me and said, ‘You’re my council member.’ I said, ‘You’re in the 10th Ward?’ And they said, ‘No, I’m in the 5th Ward.’ They don’t say specific things, [it’s] more of a feeling—‘Don kisses the white man’s ass; Don kisses the mayor’s ass,’ those kind of comments.’ ”

Samuels is blunt about his relationship with Rybak, which epitomizes the realpolitik of his larger outreach. “This will not be an adversarial relationship where I am demanding things. Because one thing I have discovered about life: When you make demands of people, they will help you and comply with every demand you make that they can’t refute—but they are not going to help you with anything else but that. When a thief says to you, ‘Give me your wallet,’ you don’t give him your watch too. If he asks for the watch, you’ll give him your watch. But I don’t want that kind of relationship. I want one where when I say, ‘Can I have your wallet?’ you say, ‘Oh, by the way, here’s the watch.’ ”

A crime metaphor might not be the best way to exemplify a new North Side vision, but Samuels has survived worse: In the wake of the “big house” imbroglio, he won reelection by 11 percentage points. In Rybak’s first postelection state-of-the-city speech a year ago, he promised to concentrate cops and city economic development energies on the North Side, though the effects so far are unclear. “That totally grew out of Don taking me to meetings in his neighborhood,” Rybak says. “The people told me, ‘You wouldn’t allow this in other parts of town,’ and they were right. Don was willing to stand by me, but he made sure I really listened, really heard that.”

Within the black community, critiques of Samuels’s approach range from the principled to the destructive.

On the reasoned side, Remington says Samuels’s philosophies are similar to those of black conservative Shelby Steele, who “talks more about personal responsibility than system causes that create the situation. That makes it appear like you’re a gatekeeper or toady for the system.” Then there are the turf wars: Remington says he frequently attends events at the Urban League, a longtime, system-challenging organization, and Samuels is often not present. Not only that, McAfee believes the Peace Foundation competes with traditional inner-city institutions for scarce nonprofit and corporate dollars. “I came out the doors of the church this summer and some folks from white churches [were] walking up and down the neighborhood cleaning stuff up,” says McAfee. “Some people would get all excited about that. I couldn’t get excited about it, because there is no way I would go out to Edina, near a white church, and [clean] it up unless I contacted that pastor first. That’s pastoral protocol.”

And then there are the hatemongers, such as Booker Hodges, who, as a guest on a public-access cable TV show after Samuels talked of the big house, spoke—possibly metaphorically—about how “we have to kill the house niggas. We gotta kill them. And that’s what we doin’ on this show. . . . If you see a house negro, deal with them appropriately, call them out, do not allow these people to continue to sell us out.”

Although Samuels was outraged enough by Hodges’s threat to file a city civil rights complaint that’s still pending, it’s telling that he now speaks as if the static is the birth pangs of a new black leadership: “That is the result of, I think, visionary leadership. Then eventually other people come along as they begin to see. I have to keep speaking out because based on what I’ve observed over the years what’s happening is not working.”

Samuels is chortling over his new city business cards, which have a unique feature—they fold out to reveal not just his contact info, but that of every council colleague, the mayor, the governor, and even newly elected Congressman Keith Ellison. Samuels goads North Siders to call the list when they experience neighborhood trouble so the rest of the city can’t ignore problems that haven’t yet become crises. But ultimately, he says, he tells constituents, “You owe me a nervous breakdown, and until I have one, I will always consider the people of north Minneapolis are underengaged and underserving themselves.”

Benjamin Myers took Samuels at his word. One night, Myers discovered his new neighbor at 26th and Logan Avenue North screaming at a juvenile. The cops drove by, but did nothing. Furious, Myers then called Samuels. “Fifteen minutes later, there’s Don sitting in front of the house in his car,” Myers remembers. “It’s after 10.” Says Samuels, “I walked into a group of guys and said, ‘Hey, how you doin? Whatcha doing?’ ‘Ain’t doin’ nothing, man. Who are you?’ And one says, ‘Oh, that’s Council, man’—they call me Council. I could tell this was one of those cases where you don’t assert—show no fear, but don’t engage too much. So I went back to my office, did some research, and I found out that there was no rental license and an unpaid water bill. So we shut it down! In seventy-two hours!”

Some might fret about a family being thrown out on the street or another set of boards being thrown up in a town full of homeless. But, like the Iraqi who knows nothing matters without security, Samuels pooh-poohs such talk. “You can worry about boarded-up houses if you live somewhere else, but if it’s an alternative to a nasty gang house, pshhh, board it up!” (Myers says the house was soon occupied—by a “respectful, quiet” family.)

Samuels has been there. In 1997, he and Sondra, newly married, bought a home in what was then “Murderapolis.” Why make such a dangerous move? “Because it was very clear that this is where the need was,” Samuels says, adding with a laugh, “It was all over the news. So many of the first middle-class African Americans had joined the white middle class in exiting the inner city as fast as we could, it created this whole void of leadership in the community, and we needed it to flow back the other way.”

He ticks off the roster of cancers on his new block: “We had two houses of prostitution, three drug houses—not, ‘Gee, officer, there’s suspicious activity,’ but real brazen stuff. So Sondra and I revived the block club, and together with the neighbors we got rid of all of those problems.”

Block club residents took down drug buyers’ license plate numbers and picketed dealers’ houses, and occasionally the landlords who rented to them. At a problem house, Samuels recalls, “fifteen of us would line the fence, two people go to the door, knock on it, and say we just had a meeting about you, and you guys are scaring us to death, and we want to help you in whatever way we can to make your home situation better. What can we do?”

A neighbor, Bill Ullom, erected a backyard basketball hoop to blow off steam with the gangbangers. He says he was shot at twice, once while working on his car in the backyard. When the worst trouble arose, he says, “I’d call 911 and Don. Guess who got there first? He’d never act scared. At the time, he’d say, ‘That’s a close one; we’re lucky the Lord protected us.’ ”

Eventually the miscreants drifted away, probably to find less nosy neighbors. But Samuels and Ullom did see blood spilled. Says Ullom, “One time, down in front of Amos & Amos on West Broadway, Don was talking to three young men selling drugs. They called him a Tom and an Oreo, but he said, ‘Man, I care for you, you’re going to die if you keep selling drugs.’ He walked around the corner, and not more than two or three minutes later five or six shots rang out. The one youth who didn’t get shot came around the corner screaming for help and threw himself into Don’s arms as his two friends lay there bleeding.”

Samuels’s passion for public safety can undermine his real-world efforts. After voting against a last-minute budget request for the city’s libraries, he was talking to Star Tribune reporter Terry Collins about the city’s sixtieth homicide, a high since the Murderapolis days. Samuels, referring to his library vote, said, “When you are a person on the other end of a gun . . . the only use for a book is to throw it at them or block a bullet with it.” The remark drew furious letters to the editor and a tut-tut editorial saying libraries deter crime by providing a positive alternative for kids. In real life, Samuels has been a Hennepin County guardian ad litem for troubled kids, a tutor, and a Sunday school teacher.

Asked about police brutality, Samuels says, “You never see people who live on a tough block in the community talking about ‘My priority is police brutality and what they’re doing to our young boys.’ You will never”—he thumps the table—“hear it from people living in some streets in my community unless that family is involved in crime.” Thundering now, he adds: “The absolute priority is ‘I can’t take this!’ ”—thump—“ ‘My family isn’t safe!’ ”—thump—“And ‘If I had the money, I’d get out of here!’ ”

Few would argue with Samuels’s emphasis on public safety, but to claim police brutality doesn’t matter seemingly ignores the millions the city has forked over settling claims and the legitimate concern for legitimate victims by people who reject a choice between safety and responsibility. But here’s the thing: Samuels supports toughening the city’s civilian review of brutality accusations; he knows it is a legitimate community problem. He earned the enmity of the Minneapolis Black Police Officers Association after forwarding to the police administration a brutality claim from a black constituent about two black officers.

Though he’s earned headlines for calling on his own community to see its role in its problems, he will also slaughter white sacred cows if he thinks their failures hurt black kids. To Minneapolis liberals with a near-religious belief in public education, the man who as a single father raised his son by his first wife says, “My children will not darken the door of a Minneapolis public school in this city at this time under these conditions. I’ve said burn North High School down! I can’t be paying as a taxpayer for the education of my neighbors and 72 percent of them are failing—meaning black boys. Something worse than vouchers could come along. If it works, if it sacrifices the entire school system, fine! Get rid of the damn thing! It hasn’t worked!”

And lest this all sound like music to the ears of, say, voucher-loving Republicans, Samuels has a message for them too: “You realize the Republicans have fought against just about all the principles that have allowed me to participate in the American dream? I couldn’t be a Republican.”

Still, when it comes to personal responsibility, Samuels doesn’t means-test. Late last year he voted to increase fees to reconnect city water that’s been shut off, even though some colleagues argued his poor constituents would be hit hardest. “I know some people might be hurting,” Samuels said later. “But what I’ve seen a lot is an acceptance of bad behavior in the community because the leadership doesn’t live [among] it, they live somewhere else. Let’s talk about a payment plan, not just no responsibility. Believe me, there are people who learn to work the system. We have to have ways to alleviate the worst situations. But if we take the rules off the table because those caught up in the net are poor people, we’ll have mayhem.”

Yet, at the same time, he has led a push to make it easier for the city to hire ex-felons, removing questions about criminal records from job applications. (The city still does criminal background checks for jobs involving safety and kids and vulnerable adults.) He has also kept a 2002 campaign promise to honor the humanity of North Side murder victims—even gang members—with day-long vigils where they were killed. Says Father O’Connell, “The guy’s brilliant. His theology and spirituality is just . . . I learn from him. I learn something from his witness. The fact that the guy is always there, with his vigils . . . it leads me.”

Samuels’s home reveals him to be one of the Twin Cities’ true Renaissance men: A verdant watercolor he painted of the Jamaican countryside is on one living room wall; tucked away on a bookshelf is a richly sketched, lavishly annotated journal of his seminary trip to the Holy Land that is sold in church bookstores. Samuels is likely the only person who has designed clothes for Jesse Ventura (the referee outfit for Ventura’s 1998 campaign “action figure”) and sung a number-one single (with a gospel group in his native Jamaica).

This outspoken and unconventional man was known as the shiest, most compliant of the ten children born to Leoni, a self-employed seamstress, and Herbert Samuels, a Pentecostal minister, in an inner-city neighborhood of Kingston, Jamaica’s capital. Sondra recalls an in-law telling her that Herbert “put down the gun when he picked up the Bible.” Don insists his father was never a criminal, more a guy who “had a gun for last resort and people would know he had it and [not] mess with him.” While generous with his poverty-stricken flock, Herbert was tough at home. “My dad was hard on everybody who was his kid,” says Samuels, the third of the brood. “Quite frankly, he was an inheritor of some of the trappings of slavery where children are not indulged and you’re pretty harsh in your parenting style. You teach your children not to evolve their personality too much—you had to look down when the white man came by, gotta call him ‘Yassa, massa.’ Even after slavery, Jim Crow, you’re going to find yourself lynched.”

The family lived in, but somewhat apart from, what Don calls “my little street of poor people.” Unlike the neighbors, the Samuelses had a piano, and occasionally poor women from the congregation helped out the large family. But things were threadbare enough that Don invented the game of “grab pillow”—when the clock struck 6 p.m., ten kids raced to claim the home’s five available pillows. Says younger brother Paul, “We lived in the ghetto, but we didn’t live a ghetto life. We were very educated, the moral standards were very high, and my mother was very ambitious. She didn’t want us to have much association with kids in the community—families who lived in one room. It wasn’t a matter of money, but class and association.”

Today, Don Samuels counts lawyers, teachers, ministers, nurses, and engineers among his siblings. Paul remembers Don as the favorite, earning the family’s first scholarship to Jamaica’s private high schools, dutifully helping out at church, and, as a teenager, leading the family-based gospel group, the Don Sam Singers—which became the first gospel group to hit number one on the Jamaican pop charts. Don says his favored status “wasn’t instinctive; I kind of earned it. I saved my lunch money and always gave my mom a Mother’s Day gift. Always gave dad a Father’s Day present.”

Despite an eagerness to please, he chafed beneath a placid exterior. “I didn’t want to be dominated,” Don says. “I had to figure out a way to survive my dad’s domination of the will. And it had to be totally internal, because if it was external I’d get killed. When my dad spanked me, I never cried, never once. It’s my little family folklore: ‘Don doesn’t cry.’ ”

As he grew into young adulthood, Samuels began to express his inner tough guy. “When I was eighteen, I remember my brother and I were running late for a meeting and were running across a bridge and some guys were gambling over on the side illegally. They saw us running, and they thought we were cops, and they took off. That really meant a lot to me. And after that, I saw a lot of theft happening in Jamaica and at least four times I intervened and stopped it. And I didn’t have any weapons or anything. I just acted like I was a cop, just acted like I had prerogative. From the bus, I saw a group of four pickpockets plan to take over the bus, to steal. So I made an announcement: ‘Ladies and gentlemen’ ” —he giggles in the retelling—“ ‘there are four pickpockets, hold onto your wallets and purses.’ ”

Samuels insists he’s never been beaten up, never even been in a fight: “The demon I fight from my dad is to be rigid and to intimidate. I think I can intimidate most people, and I’ve fought that all my life. But I have used it on the street. I know when to back off. And nobody wants to kill anybody, really, especially if it’s going to be messy, like if they know I’m a guy who’s not going to run.

Samuels moved to New York in 1970 and turned his drawing ability into a degree in industrial design. That led to a thirty-year career as a toy designer and manager for major manufacturers such as Milton Bradley and smaller concerns such as Lakeside Games, which recruited him to Minnesota in 1980.

Like many local black professionals, Samuels worshiped at St. Paul’s Pilgrim Baptist Church. By 1990, so did Sondra Hollinger. A New Jersey native with an MBA, Sondra worked with the church youth group, where she first met Samuels’s then-teenage son, Andre. (Samuels insisted on custody after the two-year marriage to his first wife, a Jamaican woman he met in New York, ended in the mid-seventies. He and Sondra have two elementary-age daughters, Asante and Amani. A second two-year marriage, to a St. Paul woman, ended in 1983.) “I was completely infatuated,” Sondra says. “He was a single dad—guys get so many points for that—and a business guy. He taught Sunday school and did children’s story time.” She was twenty-five, but sixteen years Don’s junior, and at first her flirting went nowhere. “I probably looked more like eighteen, and he just thought, ‘Nice girl,’ ” she says with a laugh. “And that too intrigued me, because I was used to players.”

Samuels is uncharacteristically hesitant when asked if he wants to become mayor, a logical step for a political player who already works citywide. “Let’s say in four years R. T. decides to go for something else,” he says. “It would [then] depend on how successful I am at doing this. If a white boy like you is really beginning to say ‘Boy, that guy’s made a difference,’ then I feel like we can make that kind of difference everywhere in the city of Minneapolis.”

For now, it’s unclear what Samuels’s four years in office have added up to beyond good feelings and good press. On the North Side, a years-long crime surge did level off this summer, some long-planned commercial projects have opened, and local developers are pounding out new and rehabbed units—but just as more houses have been boarded up in a wave of housing-bust foreclosures.

With ample historical justification, folks like Reverend McAfee have a show-me attitude. “New businesses on Broadway, that don’t mean a whole hell of a lot to me, because we already got a bunch of white businesses that don’t hire the people in the neighborhood,” he says. “That don’t get me excited, I’m sorry. Because we know the connection between poverty and crime.”

Sondra Hollinger Samuels admits she’s leery of taking a wardwide fight citywide, but she sounds resigned to the possibility. “Here’s a pattern you see with Don: So many good people who see wrong choose to see nothing, but Don doesn’t. And he gets into trouble, over and over again.”

Don Samuels isn’t quite sure how to explain his relentlessness. “I’m always perplexed that injustice can continue and succeed,” he says. “To me, the world should stop if something unjust is happening and nothing should happen until it is fixed. I don’t know why I exactly feel that way—I have seen power used, from a strong father, to stop the ship right now and let’s fix this, so why shouldn’t we do this for injustice?”

David Brauer is a Minneapolis writer and media analyst for Minnesota Public Radio. He authored Nellie Stone Johnson: the Life of an Activist, about Minneapolis’s first black elected official, and manages the Minneapolis Issues civic affairs discussion list.