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Wilfred D. Samuels

Distinguished professor Wilfred D. Samuels was born in 1947 in Puerto Limon, Costa Rica, to Lena and Noel Samuels. Samuels earned his B.A. degree in English and Black Studies at the University of California, Riverside. In 1974, he went on to earn his M.A. degree in American Studies and African American Studies from the University of Iowa. He continued his education by receiving his Ph.D. in American Studies and African American Studies.

In 1978, Samuels was hired at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado, where he served until 1985. Then, in 1985, Samuels served as an assistant professor at the University of Colorado and the Benjamin Banneker Honors College at Prairie View A&M in Texas. In 1987, Samuels joined the faculty of the University of Utah, where he is Associate Professor of English and Ethnic Studies, Director of the African American Studies Program, and Acting Coordinator of the Ethnic Studies Program.

In 1993, during the annual conference of the American Literature Association (ALA), Samuels founded the African American Literature and Culture Society (AALCS) in order to encourage the contextual research of African American Studies. The AALCS has presented several conferences including showcases introducing new poets and writers. Samuels has lectured in England, Africa, Japan and throughout Southeast Asia and has received many awards and recognitions including: the Ramona Cannon Award; the Students Choice Award and the University of Utah’s Distinguished Teaching Award.

Samuels passed away on February 3, 2020.

Wilfred D. Samuels was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on March 17, 2008.

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Abraham Lincoln Elementary School

Washington STEAM Magnet Academy

John Muir High School

Pasadena City College

University of California, Riverside

University of Iowa

University of Pennsylvania

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Birth City, State, Country

Puerto Limon



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Salt Lake City


Costa Rica

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Short Description

Nonprofit chief executive and african american studies professor Wilfred D. Samuels (1947 - 2020) founded the African American Literature and Culture Society (AALCS). Samuels was Associate Professor and Director of the African American Studies Program at the University of Utah. He lectured in England, Africa, Japan and throughout Southeast Asia.


University of Iowa

Coe College

Iowa Wesleyan College

University of Northern Iowa

University of Colorado Boulder

Prairie View A & M University

University of Utah

Timing Pairs

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Wilfred D. Samuels describes his elementary school experiences in Pasadena, California</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Wilfred D. Samuels recalls his early athletic interests</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Wilfred D. Samuels remembers his early education teachers</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Wilfred D. Samuels describes his decision to attend Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Wilfred D. Samuels recalls his professors at the University of California, Riverside</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Wilfred D. Samuels talks about the Black Arts Movement in Riverside, California</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Wilfred D. Samuels remembers early African American literature and publications</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Wilfred D. Samuels talks about California's Civil Rights Movement</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Wilfred D. Samuels remembers the Afro Caribbean writers of the Harlem Renaissance</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Wilfred D. Samuels describes his relationship with Amy Jacques Garvey</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Wilfred D. Samuels recalls his dissertation at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Wilfred D. Samuels talks about Claude McKay's poem, 'If We Must Die'</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Wilfred D. Samuels describes the different interpretations of Claude McKay's 'If We Must Die'</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Wilfred D. Samuels talks about his teaching career and mentors, pt. 1</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Wilfred D. Samuels talks about his teaching career and mentors, pt. 2</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Wilfred D. Samuels describes his recruitment to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Wilfred D. Samuels remembers Wallace Thurman</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Wilfred D. Samuels talks about Wallace Thurman's critique of the Harlem Renaissance</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Wilfred D. Samuels describes productions of Wallace Thurman's works</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Wilfred D. Samuels talks about his conference, Looking Back with Pleasure II: A Celebration</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Wilfred D. Samuels reflects upon his legacy</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Wilfred D. Samuels describes his hopes and concerns for the African American community</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Wilfred D. Samuels describes how he would like to be remembered</a>







Wilfred D. Samuels talks about Claude McKay's poem, 'If We Must Die'
Wilfred D. Samuels remembers Wallace Thurman
We should do this for whoever watches this. Tell the story of McKay's [Claude McKay] poem 'We Must Die' ['If We Must Die'].$$Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Again, this is one reason I want to make the argument that the West Indian voice was so very, very strong. As you know, following World War I [WWI], lynchings increased in, in the United States of America. And part of the reason for the increase was the arrogance, at least the perceived arrogance, of the returning black military men who had fought, you know, as the line goes, "To make the world safe for democracy." So they were gonna come back home and make certain that they were not denied the same privileges that they had fought for so. This didn't stand well with, as you know, some of, some of the Europeans. Right there in Chicago [Illinois], you are from, in 1919, you had the largest race riot when, when a black kid [Eugene Williams]--the, the beaches, as you know, was, were sep- segregated. And the story goes that a black kid dove off of a raft, and when he came up, he came up on the white side. And the whites on the, on the beach stoned him, and he died. That's how the, the 1919 riot in Chicago started. You know, by the time that news got back to the ghetto--and by the way, this is post-World War I, which means that the soldiers were not only coming back, they were trying to get those jobs that, you know, they had left behind or perhaps that they never even had. And they were now finding racism raising its, its ugly head, after they had fought to defend democracy. And they were not having it. As, as well as they also found that the, the, the dream of the urban North was now, as Langston Hughes would say, you know, having to be deferred ['Harlem']. You know, they couldn't get jobs. The housing was a problem. Education was a problem. So there was a lot of anger festering, you know, beneath the surface of all of these things. And so, when the, the young boy was killed, you know, it just all erupted. But it had all, already erupted in St. Louis [Missouri] and East St. Louis [Illinois] and the whole nine yards. And one of the ways, as you know, historically the whites were as, as--and let's just call it supremacists--tried to subjugate blacks was, was through lynching. So the story goes that McKay, who at the time had an apartment in like 135th [Street] and Lenox [Lenox Avenue; Malcolm X Boulevard], where the Schomburg [Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York, New York] now is, the Y, YMCA [Harlem YMCA, New York, New York], comes downstairs to get a coffee right there at the corner. And he sees the cover of The Crisis magazine, which is a picture of a lynching, a very, very famous picture of the, you know, the strange fruit, as Billie Holliday calls it in her song ['Strange Fruit']. And he is so angered. He is so moved that he goes right back to his apartment, and he writes this sonnet. "If we must die, let it not be like hogs," you know, hunted and, and, and killed. And then he ends the poem like that we shouldn't be like cowards; "You should not cowardly face the murderous crowd." I'm blocking on, on, on, on, on the words.$$Oh, "Like men we'll face the cowardly pack" (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) "Like men we'll face the cowardly pack / Pressed to the wall dying but fighting back." You know, I'm talking about powerful words. I'm talking about militancy, you know. I mean, even today, you know, when I read this, when I studied this, this poem, you know, my students, you know, you know, shrug, shrug backward with, you know, just disgust. You know, "He's saying kill people," he said. No, he's saying die with dignity, you know. If somebody's, you know--you're, you're, you don't, you're not protected against them. They're just taking you, lynchings, and you know, don't be a coward, you know, fight back, you know. If you're a human being and they're treating you less than a human being, then you know, where's your human dignity? You know, oh, "Oh, kinsmen! We must meet the common foe." And yeah--$$Though we're outnumbered--$$Let us far--let's--though far outnumbers, let us something or another.$$Let show us brave and--$$Show us brave, yes. I know his poem well, I used to. But then he--it becomes a sort of manifesto, that 'If We Must Die' poem. It's taken up by--of course, you know these are all young radical writers and you know, the whole nine yards. And this poem, which by the way was not published initially in a black journal. It was published in The Liberator, you know. And so it beca- it became a sort of like mantra for not only Locke [Alain LeRoy Locke], you know, the, the, the, the distinguished dean of humanities at Howard University [Washington, D.C.] who edited the, the, the, the volume of 'The New Negro' ['The New Negro: An Interpretation'], you know, but certain the younger people like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, you know, Bruce Nugent [Richard Bruce Nugent], you know, all of these, all of these young radical voices, you know, saw in Claude McKay's poem a sort of statement about the direction of the New Negro.$Well, here in Salt Lake City, Utah, I had a big surprise when I read the material. You've hosted a number of conferences and, and gatherings of black (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Oh yes.$$--writers over the years.$$Oh yes.$$But, but one that really caught my eye was a conference on the works of Wallace Thurman [Looking Back with Pleasure II: A Celebration]--$$Yes.$$--who is actually famous for his, his poetry, his plays, his--$$His plays, his novels--$$--novels and--$$--'The Blacker the Berry' ['The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life,' Wallace Thurman].$$Um-hm, 'Blacker the Berry' is the most (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Yeah.$$--famous one. You're right.$$Yeah, 'Infants of the Spring' [Wallace Thurman], yeah. I mean this--he, this guy, had Broadway plays, as you know.$$Yeah, 'Harlem' [Wallace Thurman] was--$$Har- yeah, 'Harlem,' yeah.$$--reviewed by Hubert Harrison--$$Yes (laughter).$$--in the Negro World.$$Good for you.$$So--$$Yeah, good for you.$$--so we're, we're talking about a major black writer--$$Yeah.$$--who looked like our videographer [Matthew Hickey] (simultaneous).$$(Simultaneous) And he actually--$$Yeah.$$--worked for Garvey [Marcus Garvey] too.$$That's right.$$He did work for the Negro World. He worked for the Negro World.$$Well, most of the big writers ended up working for (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Work--yeah, sure.$$--for at least one part of their career as--in the beginning.$$Yeah, they, they moved on though. I mean they moved on. But, but the big secret that most people do not know is that Wallace Thurman was born right here in Salt Lake City, Utah.$$I know I'm flabbergasted, yeah. So, tell us about this and--$$(Laughter) Well, my understanding is that his parents--his grandparents came from the Midwest to settle here. They were--actually, this another migration pattern. They were moving from the Midwest to California and never got any further. His grandma, Ma Jackson [Thurman's maternal grandmother, Emma Jackson], never got any further than, than Utah. And then--$$This is like in the 1890s or something, right, we're talking about?$$It, it was in the 1890s. It was in the late--$$Yeah.$$--nineteenth century. I mean, Wallace Thurman graduated from West High [West High School, Salt Lake City, Utah], which is still the largest high school here, in about 1919, you know. But his mother [Beulah Thurman]--I think it's his--the, the woman that is most famous here is his maternal grandmother, Mother Jackson. But because--again, it's, it's a, it's a story almost like mine. Because, because of his mother's domestic situation, the grandmother, Ma Jackson, ended up raising Wallace Thurman as the boy. And my understanding is that they would move from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Boise, Idaho. But they settled, you know, permanently in Salt Lake City, which allowed him to go to high school, to work at the Hotel Utah [Joseph Smith Memorial Building, Salt Lake City, Utah], which is famous for not letting Marian Anderson come through the, the front door (laughter). Again, it's so funny. We can laugh about stuff now because we've got a black man running for president [HistoryMaker President Barack Obama]. But people don't understand what black people went through back in the days, man. And I think--I, I could be wrong on this--that it is a result of her denial, her being denied entrance to the u- Hotel Utah through the front gates, that Mrs. Roosevelt [Eleanor Roosevelt] had that major conferen- I mean concert in Washington [D.C.] where Marian Anderson went and sang. So, something good came out of it. But at any rate, we went to West, worked at the Hotel Utah, went to the University of Utah [Salt Lake City, Utah], you know, yeah.$$Okay. So he actually was a student at the University--$$He we- (simultaneous)--$$--(simultaneous) of Utah--$$--he grew up here.$$--where you teach now?$$Yes.$$So he's a--$$That's the irony, you know. And he was a, a, a biology major. He was not a literary man--literature major. He was a biology major. And he left--Wallace Thurman was a very, very dark skinned man. And I could imagine that, particularly given the way blacks were perceived as not being worthy of the priesthood, particularly black men by the Mormon church [The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], that his life must have been a living hell in, in many, many ways. And so he left the University of Utah and went to USC [University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California], you know, in the early 1920s where he met Arna Bontemps, another major architect of the Black Arts Movement. They were both working in L.A. They were working for a black newspaper that's still around. And right now the name just went straight out of my head.$$In, in--$$In Los Angeles [California].$$Los Angeles (simultaneous).$$(Simultaneous) The Sentinel [Los Angeles Sentinel].$$Oh, the Sentinel, okay.$$Yeah, you know. And then the--$$So Bontemps and, and Thurman worked for the Sentinel?$$Ex- exactly. And, and they also worked--they first met at the post office [U.S. Post Office Department; U.S. Postal Service]. They worked at the post office in Los Angeles (laughter).$$That's where you find a lot of (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) For, for that--$$--black college graduates--$$Yeah.$$--and intellectuals--$$Yep.$$--the post office, right.$$Yeah, they were work--they--$$Yeah.$$Exactly right. Then they found their common interest and love for literature. And you know what? I don't want to, you know, misspeak, but I think they founded their first journal or magazine together there in Los Angeles. Then, of course, Harlem [New York, New York] caught fire. Bontemps went to Harlem, and Wallace Thurman followed, and the rest is history.