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 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.