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Samuel Ullman, 1840-1924

"Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life . . . ."

These words, written by Samuel Ullman of Birmingham, Alabama at the age of 70-plus, are credited with inspiring a generation of Japanese citizens, businessmen, and government leaders who were faced with rebuilding their country after World War II. Ullman died in his chosen hometown in 1924 at the age of 84 never knowing that his poetic essay would be quoted by politicians and generals, appear in Dear Abby and Ann Landers columns, and be read and loved by people all across the world.

Born in 1840 Germany to Jewish parents, Ullman immigrated with his family to America in order to escape the discrimination they met in Europe. The Ullmans settled in Mississippi in 1851, and eldest son Samuel began to help his father in his butchering/grocery business. Educated primarily in the local schools, Ullman turned down an opportunity to attend college because he felt his father needed him to help with family concerns. In May 1861 and only ten years an "American," Ullman, like his young male neighbors, joined the 16th Mississippi Regiment. Ullman's regiment joined other Confederate forces that fought in the northern Virginia campaigns with Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. He was wounded twice before he returned to his home in Port Gibson. One of his injuries caused immediate hearing loss in one ear and later led to his permanent deafness.

At war's end, Ullman moved to Natchez, Mississippi, where he married the eldest daughter of a wealthy Jewish family, began a family, established a mercantile business, and began what became a pattern of civic and religious activism that continued for the rest of his life. He served on the Natchez Board of Visitors (an early version of a board of education), was several times elected a city alderman, served as president of the Reform Jewish congregation of the city, and was popular and respected for his energy, humor, and ideals.

In 1884, Ullman moved to the young city of Birmingham where he hoped to find better economic opportunities for his wife and six children. He became an important progressive leader during Birmingham's formative years, taking courageous stands on behalf of laborers, women, and children. He served on numerous civic and community boards including one of the nation's earliest units of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Ullman is best remembered, however, for his eighteen years of service on Birmingham's Board of Education, where he earned a reputation as a tireless and fearless advocate for improved and equivalent access to educational opportunities for all the city's children, black and white. Such a position was not without its cost. When Ullman as president of the Board of Education encouraged and succeeded in providing a high school for Birmingham's black children, the board of city aldermen dismissed him. Nevertheless, The Industrial High School (now Parker) opened in 1900 to the singing, dancing, and prayers of its students. To place this event and Ullman's support in perspective, it is useful to note that as late as 1915 the states of Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana had no high schools at all for their black students. Historians suggest that Ullman's optimism, civic values, and humane philosophy of life flowed naturally from his commitment to the foundational beliefs of Judaism. His unblemished reputation and devotion to his religion led the congregation of Birmingham's Temple Emanu-El to elect Ullman as its lay rabbi, an incident that is described by Jewish scholars as unique in the congregational life of Judaism. During his tenure in that position, he led the congregation in giving the women of the temple full membership with all rights and privileges.

When his hearing loss forced his retirement from business, Ullman pursued with vigor his lifelong avocation as a poet. In his seventies, Ullman wrote the poetic essay, "Youth," which became a favorite of General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur placed a version of the poem on the wall of his office in Tokyo when he became Supreme Allied Commander in Japan, and he often quoted from the poem in his speeches. General MacArthur's influence gave the poem popularity throughout Japan and provided the people of that nation with spiritual energy to pursue rebuilding their own lives and that of their nation.

Interest in the poet who penned the words of "Youth" led many Japanese to visit Birmingham to learn more about Ullman. Such visits ultimately led in 1993 to a joint fund raising effort in Japan and the United States for the purpose of purchasing and renovating Ullman's home in Birmingham. That house, owned and operated by the University of Alabama at Birmingham, now serves as a multi-use museum that honors Samuel Ullman's life and work. It is a fitting memorial for a man who fearlessly, and without fear of consequences, advocated progressive actions in an era when that was neither fashionable nor popular.