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.