LEXINGTON, Ky. (Oct. 26, 2023) — Growing up in Winder, Georgia, a historic suburb northeast of Atlanta, Norina Samuels quickly discovered that the quality time she spent with her family differed from that of her peers. While others reveled in exhilarating amusement parks and lavish beach getaways, Samuels' single mother, Karen, defied convention as she loaded Samuels and her brother into the family car and visited cemeteries.
“All my classmates asked, ‘Where did you go for Spring Break?’” Samuels laughs while describing her macabre childhood vacations. “They all went to Myrtle Beach, and I answered, ‘I was looking up dead people.’ That’s what my mom enjoyed — she was really interested in genealogy. We spent a lot of our off-school time just traipsing along to the graveyards, so I got into looking at the headstones and all that stuff.”
By visiting cemeteries scattered throughout the picturesque landscapes of Tennessee and Kentucky, the family has meticulously woven the rich tapestry of their lineage, constructing an ancestral narrative with the names of more than 100,000 ancestors.
“She’s been working on it for as long as I can remember,” Samuels explains. “We’d go to libraries before everything was online and at your fingertips. You actually had to go places, so we’d visit some off-the-beaten-path, tiny town where she had located some distant relative. We’d be down in a basement somewhere, and she’d be sitting here looking up things on microfiche. I’d say, ‘I want to do the microfiche, too,’ so she’d give me a name to look up, and I’d get excited and say, ‘I can. I can find it!’”
These serendipitous research pilgrimages first cultivated an appreciation of history for Samuels. Two decades later, Samuels is well on her way to earning a doctorate in history from the University of Kentucky, where she specializes in the rich mosaic of 20th-century Black history, a testament to the enduring legacy of her and her mother's shared passion for the past.
Documented through her mother’s hobby, Samuels has proudly discovered that every generation of her family has had members of the military going back to the American Revolution. Karen Samuels, who had worked in cryptologic technology in the United States Navy, nurtured her daughter’s burgeoning fascination with military history from her earliest years.
Young Samuels, an avid reader, immersed herself in historical and fantasy fictions, their pages opening a doorway for her fascination with military history, the art of warfare and the enigmatic allure of medieval Europe. She describes herself as a latchkey kid, so when she would come home after school in the early 2000s, she could often be found perched cross-legged in front of the family television, feasting on a diet of PB&Js, frozen pizza and nostalgic TV reruns set in the distant past.
“I watched 'Little House on the Prairie' all the time; I think I’ve seen every episode a million times,” Samuels said. “I liked 'M*A*S*H' a lot, which is another reason I kept segueing into military history … because it’s interesting stuff! I’d watch a show like 'M*A*S*H' and understand that it was just a TV show with some dark humor. Even at that age, I knew that war was serious and didn’t involve that level of comedy. I wanted to know the reality behind the story of the Korean War … the story of the years after the Civil War in the Midwest.”
Samuels — who identifies as biracial — enrolled in Berea College after graduating from high school in 2011 and later earned a master’s degree from Southern New Hampshire University in military history.
“I started looking into the experiences of Black and brown people because I wanted to better understand the othering of people and my own mixed heritage,” Samuels explains. “I was looking at anti-colonialism … imperialism … that kind of stuff because it’s tied into military history. I wanted to learn more about the Black American experience. That’s not exactly my experience, but I’m part of that experience in my own way. That desire segued into more military history stuff because Black troops had such a vastly different experience than their white counterparts in the Civil War, World War I and World War II."
Not content with a master’s degree, she elected to pursue a doctorate at UK due to Department of HIstory's academic reputation, faculty and resources. She received the prestigious Robert S. Lipman Graduate Fellowship in History, which allows her the enviable opportunity to indulge her various historical interests.
Lipman Graduate Fellowships were established in 2017 by UK alumnus Robert S. Lipman ’74 AS, to enhance the recruitment of top graduate students, like Samuels, into the university’s psychology and history programs. The former UK cheerleader and Sigma Alpha Epsilon member is the chairman and chief executive officer of Nashville-based companies, RS Lipman Company and Lipman Brothers, Tennessee’s first wine and spirits distributor.
“Being a Lipman Fellow has allowed me to shift gears and actually get into a graduate-thinking space,” Samuels explains. "I’ve been able to settle into the program so that I can actually be successful. It provided me the freedom to not work at the factories like I was doing while working toward my master’s. I get to read articles more in-depth. I get to write better work — to be an actual historian."
Although Samuels' primary emphasis is rooted in the often-harsh realities of 20th-century Black history, including the spate of 1919 white supremacy terrorism known as Red Summer and the experiences of Black soldiers following WWI, her intellectual curiosity extends beyond the confines of her academic focus. Presently, a captivating and timely facet of her research focuses on the nuanced portrayal of Blacks within the realm of comics.
“I’m working on a research paper about Isaiah Bradley — the Black Captain America — and how that character reflects the Black American experience during World War II,” Samuels said. “I recently did research comparing Black Panther and Static. Black Panther was created in 1966 by white authors, while Static was created in the 1990s by Black authors. I examined how these characters portray Blackness and the Black American experience.”
This intersection of history and visual storytelling provides Samuels with an intellectual balance and invites a deeper examination of cultural representation.
Despite her deep-rooted affinity for history, Sameuls' gaze remains fixed firmly on the future. Now confidently in her second year of her doctoral program, she looks forward to the journey ahead. She welcomes the possibilities that await upon completing her doctorate and is ready to seize any opportunities that may arise.
“Ideally, I’d either be able to find a professorship that would allow me to further research the 20th-century African-American experience or be a historian at a museum — whatever allows me to still research and write about Black and military history.”
Samuels and her fiancée, Kayla, have been together for more than a decade. Although the couple has not made any decisions regarding children, Samuels suspects she would want to pass on her interests.
“I’d probably drag them to cemeteries in the hopes they love it as much as I did,” she laughs.
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