By James L. Stroud, Jr.
Elizabeth Samuels, a.k.a. “Moms,” “Mother Liz,” “Mother Samuels” or “Queen Mother Liz,” is a native Minnesotan who has lived in the state for all 79 years of her life. She grew up in South Minneapolis and currently resides in North Minneapolis. In the predominantly Black community village we call North Minneapolis, Mother Samuels is considered by many as one of its royal members. “Queen Mother Liz” is well known for her love and compassion for people in general and her love of Black people in particular. Years ago, Mother Samuels worked 15 years as the director of the Red Cross North Minneapolis office. She has held board seats with many organizations such as the YWCA, Phyllis Wheatley, Black Women United, The Way, Inc., and KMOJ radio, just to name a few. Mother Samuels has hobnobbed with the well-known, well-connected and powerful. Yet, she is ready to reach out and rub elbows and embrace the disenfranchised or underserved members of our community to lift them up, encourage and empower them with caring words of wisdom. If you know Liz Samuels, then you know that statement to be true and not just a nice thing to say about her in an article. In addition to family, friends and neighbors of Mother Samuels, many people, including politicians, community activists, preachers, lawyers, corporate executives, entertainers and those aspiring to be the aforementioned, seek her comforting counsel when the going is good and when the tide is rough. In fact, MSR contacted one of those lawyers-turned-politicians, U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison, who made it a point to offer his praise: “Mother Liz is a convener, a cheerleader, a source of stability and a truth-teller. Mother Liz can be counted on to support things that are important to the community, and she always has the best interest of everyone at heart. “She is concerned about people on a personal level — wants to know about your health, your birthday and your family life,” Ellison continued. “Mother Liz does it all because she cares about you, but also she cares about the functions that we all serve in pushing the community forward. She is indispensable to us all.” MSR spoke with Mother Samuels (ES) about Minnesota’s African American community and how it has changed over the years. MSR: How did your family get to Minnesota? Were your parents born here? ES: My grandmother and mother came out of Arkansas and then moved to Minnesota. MSR: How about your father? ES: My father was from Georgia. MSR: How would you sum up the change in growth for Black people in Minnesota over the decades in general, and jobs in particular? ES: Well, that’s a big subject. The population of African American people when I was growing up was very small. So back in the ’30s and ’40s there was not a large concentration of Black people living here. During that time we had streetcars. There were no buses. When we used the streetcars, I think they cost around five or six cents. Also, there were trolley cars. We didn’t really fly anywhere. If you wanted to go out of town, you either caught the bus or used the train. Black folks were working for the railroad at a place called the Round House. Most of the jobs that Black folks did at that time wasn’t these professional jobs they have now, but jobs as porters, waiters, cooks, shining shoes and that kind of stuff. MSR: Laborers? ES: Yeah, it wasn’t these professional jobs they have now. Times were rough, but people made it. MSR: Was there overt or subtle hostility towards Black people? ES: Back in those days, White folks were being White folks. You knew you were not welcome in a lot of places. You were definitely not welcome. MSR: Is Minnesota a good place for Black people to live and raise their children? ES: I think that during the time that we were coming up, it was a good place. MSR: Do you think that it is better or worse now? ES: I think that some of the Black people living here now, their values have changed drastically, to be very honest with you. So how they raise their children and how they socialize them has a lot to do with how they act. MSR: What kind of advice would you give to young African American families or individuals about coping and maintaining in Minnesota? ES: I think we need to understand the institution of racism no matter where we live. If we can understand that, we can function anywhere in the United States. MSR: What is your best memory of a significant milestone for Black people in Minnesota that you were directly involved with? ES: I can go back to the time when President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty and being involved with what was called the Mobilization of Economic Resources Board (MOER), with Andre Edgar Pillow. I was a member of the MOER Board; it was a way to help Black people get employment opportunities. One program was called New Careers. People went to school and got their degrees under that program. Josie Johnson, Matthew Little, Mable Hague and Matt Ubanks were some of the people involved with that. It happened around the time that Black folks had the rebellion on Plymouth Avenue North. Plymouth Avenue caught fire and people were marching. MSR: Was that during the 1968 riots? ES: We didn’t riot; it was a rebellion against what we considered institutional racism at the time. That’s why we marched down Plymouth Avenue. MSR: Were there businesses on Olson Highway and on Plymouth Avenue at one time? ES: Plymouth Avenue was where a lot of Jewish people used to live. If you go past Humboldt Avenue, that was all White folks. There were stores and a movie theater up there. Different businesses were up and down Plymouth Avenue. It was a thriving business avenue. It was totally different than now. Black folks lived on one side and White folks on the other. James L. Stroud, Jr. welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.