Liz Samuels: A lifetime working for liberation of Black people

Al McFarlane: Who is Liz Samuels?
Liz Samuels: I’m 71 and have lived in this community all my life. I’m committed to working for liberation of African Americans and other people of color. Al McFarlane: Who is Liz Samuels?

Liz Samuels: I’m 71 and have lived in this community all my life. I’m committed to working for liberation of African Americans and other people of color.

AM: What was the world like for you as a child?

LS: We struggled to survive. My brothers [had] to get coal off the railroad tracks [to] heat our stove.

AM: When you were in high school, what were your choices in life?

LS: You weren’t encouraged to do anything. I went to work with my grandmother at a place called Radio City Music Hall.

AM: Here?

LS: Here in Minneapolis. I helped her clean the place. I worked as a salad girl at Jim Mowry’s Barbecue, right off Cedar and Riverside, I believe. I worked at another place off Franklin and Lyndale, doing restaurant work. I never had goals except [becoming] a secretary. That’s all I knew about. My awakening began during the rebellions of the 60s, on Plymouth Avenue. I started to [see] things were changing, that we were doing something progressive for African Americans. I started to think about what I needed to do for my people.

AM: What did you think prior to that?

LS: I remember going to school one day. They were talking about the military and what Black people were not doing in the service. I always remember standing up and saying, “If they’re good enough to fight, they should be good enough to have jobs and have opportunities.” I used to talk about the fact that we were treated differently. I knew that was very apparent, but I didn’t know how to articulate it. But, I remember, in class, I stood up that day. There [were] only maybe four Black children in the whole school.

AM: What was it like?

LS: We never had proper clothing because we were poor. You went to school, worried about whether people were going to make fun of you. I worried about whether I would have a partner, because all the people in the gym class were White. There weren’t any Black [partners]. White people didn’t want to have anything to do with you. I never did have a partner in gym to do exercise.

AM: That was the general environment.

LS: Yes.

AM: I came from Worthington, Minnesota. When I came here, in ’66 and ‘67. Minneapolis was starting to cook. It was getting motivated by the same passion, the same rebellion that ignited Black communities around the country. What was happening here?

LS: The Way Opportunities Unlimited began on Plymouth Avenue. That was the first evidence I remember where there was active rebellion against the institution of racism. That started out with Willa Mae Dixon, Syl Davis, Joe Burkhalter, and a few other people. It [came] out of a place called Fishing Unlimited. There was a lot of activity around the country and that’s when Minneapolis’ north side really [rebelled] against racism.

AM: How?

LS: [What] got the attention of the rest of the country, particularly Minneapolis, is when the fires started on Plymouth Avenue. Grocers were overpricing the items, selling [inferior] goods. There were no employment opportunities. Housing was poor. They were resisting the illnesses institutional racists produced. The reaction to it [was] what I call the rebellions on Plymouth Avenue, where the fires took place.

AM: Plymouth Avenue was a vibrant, commercial street of primarily Jewish merchants, right?

LS: Right.

AM: I heard stories of restaurants where they wouldn’t accept Black customers.

LS: [One] part of North Minneapolis, was basically all White and Jewish. You lived on the other side. If you lived in public housing, that’s where most of the Black people were living. But [one] part of Northside Minneapolis was basically all White. Plymouth Avenue had a movie theater. There [were] a lot of different stores and businesses…run by White people. They would serv

January 6, 2003
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