For years, Samuel Ullman (1840-1924) and his prose-poem “Youth” have been known and admired by the Japanese. However, both the man and his work are largely unknown in the United States, even in Birmingham where he spent the last forty years of his life in service to the community.
The Samuel Ullman Museum was created to advance Ullman’s vision by examining his civic, educational, and religious ideas and endeavors. The museum is a facility of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and exists through the efforts and contributions of citizens and corporations in Japan and the United States. The Samuel Ullman Museum provides visitors with an opportunity to explore the life of the poet and to be inspired by his work.
Ullman was born in Germany in 1840. At the age of eleven, he and his family moved to the United States and settled in Port Gibson, Mississippi. After briefly serving in the Confederate Army, he became a resident of Natchez, Mississippi. There, Ullman married, started a business, served as a city alderman, and was a member of the local board of education. In 1884, Ullman moved to the young city of Birmingham, Alabama, and was immediately placed on the city’s first board of education.
During his eighteen years of service, he advocated educational benefits for black children similar to those provided for whites. In addition to his numerous community activities, Ullman also served as president and then lay rabbi of the city’s reform congregation at Temple Emanu-El. Often controversial but always respected, Ullman left his mark on the religious, educational, and community life of Natchez and Birmingham. In his retirement, Ullman found more time for one of his favorite passions – writing letters, essays and poetry. His poems and poetic essays cover subjects as varied as love, nature, religion, family, the hurried lifestyle of a friend, and living “young.” It was General Douglas MacArthur who facilitated Ullman’s popularity as a poet – he hung a framed copy of a version of Ullman’s poem “Youth” on the wall of his office in Tokyo and often quoted from the poem in his speeches. Through MacArthur’s influence, the people of Japan discovered “Youth” and became curious about the poem’s author. It is appropriate that “Youth” is the element that brought Ullman’s life into public scrutiny. The message of “Youth,” its emphasis on optimism and its challenge to remain true to one’s ideals, reflects the substance of Ullman’s life. Spanning the experience of immigrant, soldier, businessman, and progressive community activist, Samuel Ullman’s story continues to provide inspiration to the world community decades after his death.
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. Youth means a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity of the appetite, for adventure over the love of ease. This often exists in a man of sixty more than a boy of twenty. Nobody grows old merely by a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. Worry, fear, self-distrust bows the heart and turns the spirit back to dust. Whether sixty or sixteen, there is in every human being’s heart the lure of wonder, the unfailing child-like appetite of what’s next, and the joy of the game of living. In the center of your heart and my heart there is a wireless station; so long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer, courage and power from men and from the infinite, so long are you young. When the aerials are down, and your spirit is covered with snows of cynicism and the ice of pessimism, then you are grown old, even at twenty, but as long as your aerials are up, to catch the waves of optimism, there is hope you may die young at eighty.