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

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.’ ”