Karen Hudson-Samuels remembered as Black television news pioneer


Karen Hudson Samuels (left) with Kathy Hughes (right) at WGPR-TV Museum. (Photo: Joe Spencer)

Pioneering journalist Karen Hudson-Samuels — a former news director at Detroit’s WGPR-TV, the first Black-owned television station in the United States — died Feb. 9 at her Detroit home.

She was 68. 

Although Hudson-Samuels worked at WGPR-TV for just a few years before moving on to a career with Ford’s training and development division, she made it her mission late in life to preserve the WGPR studios on East Jefferson as a museum. The station ended its run as a Black enterprise in 1995 when it was bought by CBS and became WWJ-TV. But it will always be known for having launched the television careers of numerous Black Detroiters.

In January 2017, Hudson-Samuels presided when the old studios reopened as the William V. Banks Broadcast Museum, named after the station’s founder. Since then, Hudson-Samuels volunteered to run the museum and fundraise for it almost single-handedly, friends said, until her death.

A week before she died came a crowning achievement: On Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month, the National Park Service announced it had granted the museum a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the nation’s official roster of important historic sites.

Besides championing the museum, Hudson-Samuels was equally well known for leading volunteer efforts to place historical makers at sites significant to Black history in Detroit. She and others aimed to bring African American history up to the same level of attention given to countless sites of non-Black history.

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Each marker costs $5,000 to $8,000 in donated funds, depending on how many words are engraved in bronze, said Jamon Jordan, a former history teacher and owner of the Black Scroll Network, a tour company focused on Black history. Hudson-Samuels became a tireless fundraiser, Jordan said. On the day she died, the two spoke by phone about the need for a marker in what once was called Black Bottom, a thriving corridor of Black-owned businesses near downtown Detroit that was leveled in the late 1950s during construction of I-375 and the adjacent Lafayette Park neighborhood, where Hudson-Samuels lived in recent years.

“She was like a whirlwind, and she had the ability to get things done without wasting time,” Jordan said. Yet, despite her drive and strong will, “she was still a person you wanted to know, still a kind person,” he said.

In October, the Free Press shot a photo of Hudson-Samuels posed with other Black-history buffs and city officials after they unveiled a new marker in downtown Detroit, at Shelby and State streets, commemorating the location of Detroit’s first Black newspaper, the Plaindealer, which published from 1883 to 1894. 

Karen Hudson Samuels and former program director at WGPR, Joe Spencer, with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Wayne County Executive Warren Evans. The unveiling of the Michigan Historical Marker. The National Register plaque will be placed above the marker. (Photo: Joe Spencer)

Born in Ann Arbor, Hudson-Samuels moved with her family as her father took college teaching jobs in Puerto Rico, North Carolina and Afghanistan, according to a city of Detroit testimonial resolution released this week to honor Hudson-Samuels.

Upon returning to the United States, she entered Indiana University, where her father had become a professor. She received a bachelor’s degree in Afro-American Studies and a master’s in Instructional Systems Technology.

She then began at WGPR-TV as an intern in the station’s earliest days. WGPR began as a white-owned AM radio station whose call letters stood for “Grosse Pointe Radio” because its studios were in suburban Detroit. In 1964, Banks, a Black lawyer who had founded a Black order of Masons, leveraged the religious group’s assets to buy WGPR, moved it to Detroit and said the call letters now stood for “Where God’s Presence Radiates.” A few years later, Banks, who was a Republican, gained President Richard Nixon’s support in a bid to buy a television license.

The station began broadcasting in 1975 on UHF Channel 62, said Ken Coleman, a Detroit author and historian.

“Karen was part of that first generation of African Americans who learned television broadcasting, at the first Black-owned station in the nation, getting experience and opportunities that they never would’ve gotten anywhere else,” Coleman said.

She soon was hired as a news anchor and also hosted Black Film Showcase, a weekly slot for historic Black films, while headed toward the desk of news director. Along the way, she was a mentor to countless beginners in television news, said Vincent McCraw, president of the Detroit chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists.

“She was devoted to making sure that Black journalists took advantage of all opportunities in the industry,” not just the jobs at WGPR, McCraw said.

“We at Detroit NABJ will miss the spirit, smile and joy of our dear friend,” he said in an email.

Hudson-Samuels was familiar to legions of Detroit broadcasters, and many of them publicly mourned her passing.

 “She’s been a friend for many years,” tweeted WWJ reporter Vickie Thomas. “I will miss her dearly.”

Kimberly Simmons, author of history books and executive director of a cultural heritage organization called the Detroit River Project, for years worked closely with Hudson-Samuels on the Black Historic Sites Committee, designated an “affinity group” by the Detroit Historical Society.

Hudson-Samuels’ passion for preserving Black history will be hard to replace, as will her devotion to running the WGPR museum, Simmons said, 

“That was her baby because she didn’t have any kids,” Simmons said.

Hudson-Samuels’ body was found by her husband, Clifford Samuels Jr., one day after his wife had received a COVID-19 vaccination. Health officials have said there is no evidence that COVID vaccinations caused the isolated deaths that occurred nationwide after millions of Americans received shots. Instead, underlying health conditions are most likely to blame, according to doctors and vaccine experts.

Following an autopsy, the cause of death is “looking like a stroke,” Hudson-Samuels’ husband said.

Besides her husband, Hudson-Samuels is survived by her sisters, Brendon Hudson and Dr. Margaret Hudson-Collins; cousins Elizabeth Lyra Ross and Cynthia Ross; her nephew, Dr. Carl Collins; her niece, Katherine Collins; her two great-nieces, Olivia and Brynn Collins; and her brother-in-law Christopher Samuels.

The family suggested that tax-deductible donations in Hudson-Samuel’s memory be made to the WGPR-TV Historical Society, 3146 East Jefferson Ave., Detroit, MI 48207.

More: WGPR-TV Historical Society acknowledged as a historic landmark by the National Register

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Contact Nour Rahal: nrahal@freepress.com and follow her on Twitter  @nrahal1. Staff writer Bill Laitner contributed.

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