was transcribed as part of the Civil Rights Documentation
Funding for this
project was provided in part by the Mississippi
the National Endowment for the Humanities, and
Department of Archives and History.
Mrs. Evelyn Dorsey Polk was
born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on November 12, 1919. Her
parents were Lenora and William O.P. Dorsey. She received
a Bachelor of Arts degree from Fisk University, a Bachelor
of Science degree in Library Science from the University of
Illinois and a Master of Science degree in Library Science
from the University of Michigan.
Prior to moving to Meridian,
Mississippi, Mrs. Polk had been employed as librarian at the
then Winston-Salem Teachers College in Winston-Salem, North
Carolina and as periodical librarian at Howard University,
in Washington, D.C.
Mrs. Polk participated in the
civil rights movement in Meridian as well as being active
in church and community activities. She also taught at the
Jackson College Extension Center in Meridian.
Mrs. Polk was married to the
late Octavius D. Polk, M.D., and this union brought forth
five children--one son and four daughters.
Presently Mrs. Polk is still
living in Meridian. In order to cope with the twelve-year
illness of her husband and his subsequent death, she became
an oil painter, after studying art at the Meridian Community
College. She has received some awards for her paintings, and
she continues to study and work with local artists. She also
sells and exhibits her paintings and enjoys visiting with
her eleven grandchildren.
Higher education 1
Church membership 2
Civil rights groups and organizations
Freedom riders 3
Underground newspaper 3
Integration of Meridian High
Important contributors to the
rights movement during the
Grandfather, J.G. Higgins, invents
straightening comb 7
Mississippi State Representative
Charles Young Jr. 8
Reverend Duncan Gray forms a
process school integration
issues with parents 9
Concerned Citizens group 9
Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner
Dr. O.D. Polk Sr. is first black
on the Meridian School Board
and on the American Red Cross
The struggle for black women
to be called Mrs. or
Miss rather than by first name
Dr. O.D. Polk Sr.'s struggle
for privileges at Anderson Hospital 15
Family life when children were
growing up 16
Head Start program 20
Jackson College Extension Center
This is an interview for
the Civil Rights Documentation Project. The interview is with
Mrs. Evelyn Dorsey Polk and is taking place on November 30,
1998, in Jackson. The interviewer is Don Williams.
(A segment discussing scheduling
of the interview is not included in this typed transcript).
were you born?
your date of birth?
Terrible! November 12, 1919. My birthday just passed.
Have you lived any place other than Meridian?
Washington, D.C.; Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Those are
the only two places I had made my residences.
were you in Washington, D.C.?
Polk: Let me
see. I finished Fisk in forty-one. Undergraduate school. [And
I was in D.C. from forty-six to forty-eight.]
what did you major in at Fisk?
[I received a B.A. from Fisk.] Then I got a B.S. in library
science from the University of Illinois in forty-two, and
Master's Degree in library science from the University of
Michigan in forty-six.
And when were you in Winston-Salem?
forty-two to forty-five. [And I was employed as librarian
at the then Winston-Salem Teachers College. From forty-six
to forty-eight, I was employed as periodical librarian at
Howard University, Washington, D.C.]
Polk: No. I
finished there in forty-six. I was in Winston--. You know,
I tell you the truth about dates! Let me see. I finished in
forty-one. In forty-two, forty-three, forty-four, I should
have been in Winston-Salem from forty-two to forty-four. And
latter part of forty-five to forty-six at University of Michigan,
and then to D.C. in forty-six to forty-eight, something like
that. In the forties.
Now, what church did you attend while you were in Meridian?
Polk: I'm a
cosmopolitan Christian. By that, I mean, I was born and raised
in the Congregational Church. When I moved to Meridian, I
took instruction in the Catholic Church. I joined the Methodist
Church and then I ended up in the Baptist Church because of
family requests. So, I [am a member of New Hope Missionary
Hope. That was Reverend--
I joined under him.
And when was that, would you think?
see. In the seventies.
prior to joining New Hope, what church did you attend?
Polk: St. Paul
Methodist Church. And we did have a Congregational Church
[in Meridian] at one time and a former president of Tougaloo
would come over once on every Sunday to have services at that
what was his name?
Polk: Oh, gosh.
He was so nice. What was his name? I can't remember right
now. It might come to me.
That's OK. I'll look it up. That's no problem.
Polk: He left
there and moved to Louisiana, and so after that the church
So during the sixties, you were at St. Paul? During the civil
[But also attended New Hope Baptist.]
you belong to any civil rights groups or organizations?
the NAACP, mainly. I didn't join any of the others, but I
worked with the Southern Christian Movement, and then I worked
ardently with most of the freedom riders when they came to
you say you worked with the freedom riders, essentially, what
did you do?
Polk: One thing
[was to work with] one of the young ladies that was from Yale
[who] would travel back and forth to New Orleans because they
were putting out a paper.
you remember the name of the paper?
Polk: I was
trying to remember the name of that paper. I think it was
the Southern Courier, but I'm not sure. I never was
able to save any copies because my son was young and he would
deliver those papers free to certain people and everybody
wanted a copy so, I don't remember exactly the name, but I
believe it was the Southern Courier, and it was kind
of like an underground newspaper.
what were some of the things that they would talk about in
the Southern Courier.
Polk: As far
as I can remember, most of [the information was about getting]
everybody interested in doing
something, you know. To get interested in voting. To become
literate, because a lot of people, when I moved to Meridian,
I found a lot of people unable to read and write. And, the
first two years we were [in Meridian], you had to pay poll
tax. And then, we tried to give instruction to people so they
could learn how to go up [and register to vote.] And they
started these questionnaires so [people] would know how to
respond and write information on these questionnaires in order
to be able to vote, after they ruled out poll tax.
Now what was your son's name who used to deliver the papers?
Polk: He was
Octavius Douglas Polk Jr.
How do you spell Octavius?
They called him O.D. Just O.D. Polk Jr.
when he would deliver the papers, where would he deliver them?
the neighborhood. You know how it used to be, that, by word
of mouth, you would know where to go. And, this particular
girl, she was interesting in that she had dropped out of Yale
[for a while], and the interesting thing about her, was her
father was teaching at Meharry and worked with the guy who
came up with the polio vaccine, so it made her a very interesting
character to be around. So she used to come to my house a
lot and eat, you know. But she was always on the move a lot.
you said she was from the North.
She was with, she came down with--. You know how the freedom
riders would come and would go. But she stayed a pretty good
while. At least about, she was around about a year or so,
or something like that.
you remember any other of the volunteers who came in from
of course, I knew the three boys who--
(A telephone call briefly interrupts
Michael Schwerner and Goodman and Schwerner's wife, I knew
them. And Chaney, I knew family, you know. And see my husband
was a practicing physician so he gave volunteer service to
people who needed it when they would come to town.
was your husband's name?
Polk: He was
senior. My son was junior.
is he a physician now as well?
Polk: My son
is a physician, yes.
he is in Jackson?
Polk: No. He
practices [in] Washington, D.C. And he has been doing some
teaching at Howard [University Medical School.] He's a pulmonologist.
He has his boards in pulmonology, critical care and internal
Do you have any other children?
You know, you met my daughter here. She is a specialist in
physical medicine [and rehabilitation.]
Polk: I have
a daughter in New Jersey. She finished Howard and she was
the first full-time black employee of our Congressman Sonny
Montgomery. She worked out of his office while she was an
undergraduate and then she went full-time and became his chief
did she go to undergraduate school?
Polk: She went
to Howard. Yes, so she was in Washington a good while. Until
she got married.
what is her name?
Polk: Her name
is Lana. Lana Polk Murray. L-A-N-A. So, she worked and did
a very good job. He was very sorry when she left, [and] he
was our Congressman, third district Congressman, [from Mississippi.]
So, then, I have another daughter that lives in Tennessee,
in Chattanooga, my hometown. She has just finished all of
her work on her doctor of philosophy degree in junior college
administration from the University of Texas. That was last
year or two years ago. She works with the junior college.
Then I have one other daughter, who is a single mom, now,
and she lives in Meridian.
Polk: Her name
is Shari, S-H-A-R-I.
So you had one son and four daughters.
did your children attend high school in Meridian?
Jo Lynn is the oldest. She finished [at] the black high school,
Harris High School. All the rest of them finished from Meridian
High. My son and another guy were the ones who integrated
the high school [band].
Polk: The junior
high [school] wanted my son and another person to really integrate
the band, and that is why they just pleaded with them to go
you remember what year your son first attended [Meridian High]?
let's see, he finished in seventy-one, so--whatever--I mean,
I'm not good at figures.
it a four-year curriculum?
about 1966, he first attended--
Polk: No, wait
a minute now. See, he finished Notre Dame in seventy-four.
So, [he first attended Meridian High in 1968.]
what did he major in at Notre Dame?
he followed a pre-med course and they had it all outlined,
so when he finished Notre Dame, he was admitted to med school.
Let's see, Sadie and Patricia and Sandra and Louise Hopkins
and Johnnie Faye. It was five, originally, women went there
[to Meridian High School.] How did you feel about your son
and daughters going to--
my husband and I, we talked about it. He played in the band
but he really was interested in basketball, [but] he liked
the band instructor so much. She had interviews with us and
she said if my son, Douglas and a friend of his, if they would
just please do that, it would just help out the community.
And we have always been concerned with community development
so we left it up to him. And told him we would cooperate with
anything he wanted to do. And the interesting thing about
it is that he never complained about having gone there but
never told us about all the incidents that happened until
after [his first years in] college.
Can you go over a little of that for me? You know, just what
it was the fact [that students] used to throw eggs at our
windows at the house and he said the first semester he was
[at the school] that they would make ugly cracks when they
would go up and down the hall. But then [in] the spring, when
the whole band went to Florida, they didn't have a bit of
it was a mixed band that went to--.
Polk: It was
a totally mixed band. They were the only two blacks in the
band at the time. And then when they went to Florida for a
band concert, or something, things just seemed to level out.
how many of your children actually went to Meridian High?
Let me ask you this. Who do you think were important contributors
do you mean, in the community?
ma'am, during the sixties when things were integrated.
of them are deceased now. Charles Darden who was on the board
of the NAACP. He lived in Meridian. He sold rings, you know,
paraphernalia, I call it, to schools. There was a man by the
name of Albert Jones who had a restaurant and who ended up
[with] a lot of real estate, [and he was very active.] James
Bishop, the Enterprise Funeral Home gentleman, he was very
forthright. And then, we had a pastor of one of the churches,
Reverend Richard Porter, who was in the forefront a lot.
And then there was another
young man by the name of Attorney Hogan who had finished,
I think, Ole Miss, but he died during [the sixties.] Reverend
Inge was the type of person that really didn't follow all
of the activity. He stayed within the church parameter more
than really being an outspoken man like Reverend Porter was.
So, I mean there were others. You know, those are the ones
that visibly I was around a lot because I used to go to a
lot of the churches and try to, you know, help in any way
we could because we were always trying to take up money and
that sort of thing and help that way. But they all don't come
to my mind right now.
ma'am. Can you tell me, what are some of the things that you
just mentioned? That you used to go around to the different
churches and raise funds. What are some other things you did?
Some of the things that we used to do would be to have these
meetings so when we did have some of the civil rights workers
there and all, too, it was--. You know how emotional most
black people in black churches are, and it was, to me, it
was to gain emotional strength. And to try to get people to
register to vote, to not be intimidated, to try to--. And
Charles Young is another one I have to mention because Charles
and his family, I mean I knew them because my family, being
from Chattanooga, and my grandfather had invented a straightening
comb, and we used to sell combs all over the country [and
to his father's business.]
grandfather had invented a straightening comb?
Polk: A straightening
was your grandfather's name?
Higgins. I think it is only in one book about him because
he was the type of person--[he died before my birth]--who
I understand did not like to pay for publicity and if he couldn't
do it on his own, he didn't do it. He was a good friend of
Madam J. Walker's and he and my grandmother all helped to
invest in Universal Life Insurance Company, and so forth and
so on. All of that.
Now, I have interviewed Charles Young. Tell me a little bit
about Mr. Young.
Polk: The father
or the son?
go with Senior.
Senior was the most charismatic gentleman you could ever meet.
He had businesses in Chicago [and Meridian], and he traveled
back and forth from Chicago to Meridian.
now the state representative.
Polk: The state
representative. Well, Charles Jr. has always been like his
father. He is a very charismatic young man and he was always
available and I think Charles knew how to maneuver. He knew
how to get along with people. At the same time, he was able
to get done what he wanted to do. There are some people who
are charismatic. They can bring people around them [but] then
they can't take their success, but he is the type of person
who, he takes success with a smile and he takes failure with
a smile. And, he is a very good friend of mine and the family's.
The biggest difficulty, I think he had, was with family to
some degree. So, other than that, but he was always available
for help and we used to have activities a lot, because he
helped, when Lyndon Baines was president, he helped to get
the Head Start going around in [our] area.
And then he had a radio station
at one time. I mean, a lot of endeavors he tried and then
he tried and went into real estate, but at that time, and
it still was, because my husband and I were always wanting
to develop black participation, black business, but when the
black man or the black woman's mind is set from historically
being treated as underclass, it is hard to get that mind-set
going another way. So consequently, I think at that time,
if Meridian had really believed in developing black business
and supporting black business, because we had some black businesses
there, that it would have been a great progressive city long
before now. That's my feeling.
Now let me ask you this. I know that you had a lot of burnings
and shootings and things all over the state. Does any particular
incident stand out in your mind? Or series of incidents in
let me put it this way. Not any one particular incident, but
we used to have to, when we would go to the church meetings,
we would have to have people out with guns, you know, watching
and seeing if nobody would come by. But anyway, the year before
we decided to integrate the schools, [Reverend Duncan Gray
of St. Paul Episcopal Church] formed a nucleus of parents
and ministers and people that he thought would probably let
their children go to [integrated] schools. And we used to
meet at least once a week at his church to discuss what could
we do? What should we do? And how should we react? It was
an open discussion into just what are we looking at if we
send our children to [integrated] schools? How can we prevent
violence and all of that? It was a wonderful experience, and
he was a great motivator.
We also, through him, developed
what we called a group of Concerned Citizens. Was it Concerned--?
I think it was Concerned Citizens in which we [published a
pamphlet stating] what we were trying to do, as a result of
the church burnings, [and] were trying to send speakers out,
particularly in the white community, to talk about what they
could do to help, you know, [about] these church burnings,
and I was on that committee. And, the one thing I remember
and it is real up here in my mind, because I have had a whole
lot of experiences. [Anyway, Reverend] Duncan Gray called
me and said that a lady was going to call me and they wanted
me to speak at one of their meetings. And I said, "OK." So
when she called she told me who she was and she said that
she was with a group of ladies and they wanted me to speak
because they didn't see too many women's names on [the list.]
you remember the name of the group or the church?
Polk: No. It
wasn't a church. It was a club. And the lady is deceased,
now, but I told her [to] let me know where they were meeting
and I could come and she told me where they were meeting and
what time to come. So before I hung up, I said, " I need to
tell you one more thing."
And she said, "What?"
And I said, "Now, I am a black
She said, "Oh, honey, let me
call you back."
So immediately Duncan Gray
and the Presbyterian minister called me and said, "We are
coming down." Of course, I was at my husband's office, and
he said, "We are coming down, right now." And they came down
there and they were apologetic.
And I said, "Oh, don't apologize,
because I knew I did not want a door closed in my face. And
I want people to accept me for what I am and not for what
they think I might be."
So, [Reverend Gray] said, "Well,
there's no point in us having this organization, if they don't
want to hear or want the speakers to come." So it just fizzled
out. And the Presbyterian minister finally left the area.
So that was a great experience that I had with our Concerned
Let me ask you this. You mentioned the three civil rights
workers, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, and that you knew
them. Can you tell me a little about those young men?
Polk: You know,
we used to meet. They would come up to my husband's office
a lot, and all. I talked with his wife.
was your husband's [medical] office located?
On Fifth Street, upstairs. Off of Fifth Street. At the time,
it was up over Berry and Gardner's Funeral Home. We stayed
there a long time, until we moved to another location.
Someone told me that there was a house these workers stayed
in the night before.
Polk: You know,
my family, we were in New York when they found them and when
most of all this went on, and I am not sure where they were
staying. I don't know. I really don't know, but I never--.
I mean, my meeting and talking with them was not in depth
at any time. It was just hit and miss a lot because they were
always on the go so much, but I think they used to--. You
know, as I was telling you, my husband did offer medical services,
and so I think Schwerner and his wife were in the office [when]
we talked at length about a lot of different things, philosophically,
when you say philosophically--
what can and could be. And why can't you get people to get
rid of their mind-sets that they have that they are afraid
to venture out. And the other thing that we found that so
many of the people who were working for others, in the other
white community, sometimes some of them were hammered into
telling what was going on and others stood their ground. It
was just kind of confusing because it was so easy for blacks
to give up to some degree. I'll put it like that.
Because of the living conditions,
because when I moved to Meridian, I was ready to turn around
and go back. I told the principal of the
[black] high school I would help out down there to get things
straight. I went to where they had a library, and it was in
the back of the chapel and rats had eaten through the books
from one end to the other. You know, I mean, it was that horrible.
was at Harris School?
And then of course the superintendent at that time was a racist.
He ran into my husband's car. That was in the seventies I
was his name?
Polk: His name
was Dr. Ivy and a lot of stuff is named after him. But the
interesting thing about this accident--nobody was hurt--
(End of tape one, side one.
The interview continues on tape one, side two.)
Polk: He told
my husband, you know, "It's no point in you [calling the police],
because I'm a white man."
So, my husband said, "That's
fine." And I don't know whether we even called the police,
and then we went on to the insurance company and let them
finish taking care of it. But that was an example. He knew
my husband well. Now, see, my husband was the first black
they had on the school board which, was from sixty-nine to
seventy-four, because he was on the school board when my son
finished high school, which was in seventy-one.
He was the first black on the
school board, and my husband was a very soft-spoken man. The
junior college that's in Meridian now was a part of the white
high school that blacks couldn't attend. But then when they
moved in the late sixties out where they are now, then it
was opened up. But at the time my husband was on the school
board, the school board had charge of the Meridian Public
Schools and the junior college at the same time when it moved
from the high school, so the retiring president of the [junior
college] gave good accolades to my husband in a [recent] newspaper
article which I haven't even seen. The fact that he learned
so much from him when he was on the school board because he
was a very patient man.
But we did have some of the
people in the community, particularly one of the NAACP presidents,
who wanted to prod him and make him do what they wanted done
whether it was the right thing to do or not because, you know,
at that time, people wanted you to be loud and outspoken and
my husband was the type of person who said, "Let's negotiate
with intelligence." And he would sit and listen. So, when
I think about it, I think in terms of--. Because I was the
one who was always outspoken. I'll give you another good example
of ideas in the community relationships that I had because,
when I first moved to Meridian, I did not shop in Meridian.
I did without or drove to Chattanooga because the paper and
the philosophy of the paper, The Meridian Star, and
the philosophy of all the merchants was, they seemed to never
respect married women with their title. And I refused to trade
where no one would call me, "Mrs." I was proud of my name.
since you mention that: were there any boycotts of merchants
and things in Meridian?
when the freedom riders came and they started sit-ins. Let
me give you two or three good examples of what I am talking
about. My husband was on the American Red Cross Board. He
was the first black they appointed on the American Red Cross
Board, I think. If you put all this in my name in writing,
I don't like it, but anyway.
going to put you on a Web site and you are going around the
Polk: I was
asked to work with the Junior Red Cross in the schools, and
of course all the schools were segregated at the time. So
I had a young child, and my first meeting, I called and told
them I would be late. So when I got there, my husband was
always telling me, he said, you know, "Don't get upset. Just
sit there and listen, and don't worry too much about anything."
I said, "OK."
And, so, when I got there,
I met a lady, and she said, "You're Dr. Polk's wife?"
I said, "Yes, I am."
She said, "Well, go in." Well,
when I went in and sat down, I said to myself when I went
in there, after she first called me, she said, "Well, Evelyn,
we are glad to have you."
So, I said [to myself], "Now
if she calls me Evelyn two more times, I am going to say something."
So, the next thing she said,
"Evelyn, here is your packet. And, oh yes, Evelyn, let me
introduce you to everybody."
And everybody was Mrs., Mr.,
etc. OK. That was the third time. So I said, "Excuse me. May
I interrupt you?" I said, "I haven't been in Meridian very
long and I don't know any of you well enough to call you by
your first name, and I don't think you know me at all." So,
[there was silence and very red faces.]
And the president said, "Well,
Mrs. Polk, I don't mind calling you Mrs. Polk." So the meeting
went on. So she was supposed to send a letter out to all the
black principals and said, "Let us know which teacher is going
to work with the Junior Red Cross." So in two weeks time,
she called me and she said, "Mrs. Polk, this is" whatever
her name was, at the time. She said, "I am calling because
I have a problem." She said, "Now, I have received all the
names of the teachers who are going to work with us, but there
is not Miss or Mrs. by a name."
I said, "I will straighten
that out right now." So I went to every school and asked them
why didn't they put Miss or Mrs. by every person's name. They
said, "We don't do that."
I said, "Well, you do it for
this particular project." And that was the philosophy: you
followed what they did. So I used to do a lot of public speaking
when I first got there, and people would put my name in the
paper: the wife of Dr. Polk will speak. So I went down to
the paper and asked them why couldn't they put my name in
there. I said, "Because I am in my own right."
And they said, "We just don't
So I said, "You ought to stop
printing my name." And when I would go to any store, and I
would tell them that I don't want my husband to know what
I am buying, so I want to open up a charge account in my name,
and if they did not, I would not buy. And then, I got to thinking,
"Now, why should I get mad at them?" So I said, "Well, I will
make my tactics different."
So when I started out again
trying to get charge accounts, the lady would say, you know
"What's your first name?"
And I would say, "Well, you
really don't need it, but I will give it to you." And then
immediately, they would call me Evelyn. So my retort was,
"Did I meet you at Susie's party last night?" So I didn't
have any more trouble. So, I said, if I used intelligence
to combat ignorance, then, you know, I make a point.
But one of the professional
women, I won't call her name, because she is deceased now,
when I told her my philosophy, she said, "Well, you know--"
She was in business and doing well. She said, "Well, you know,
you ought to take the philosophy that as long as you get what
you want, what difference does it make what they call you?"
I said, "It makes all the difference
in the world to me."
she black or white?
Polk: She was
you give me her name? That's important.
Polk: I'd rather
not because she is deceased.
this is for an historical purpose.
it was a Mrs. Fielder, Carrie Sue Fielder, and her husband
was a pharmacist there, but that was the attitude that most
people had, you know. Get what you want and don't worry about
Fielder, is that their son?
was his mother.
am going to interview Al Fielder.
he won't know anything about that because he was younger,
and he wouldn't know. But I do remember she told me that and
that was most of the people's philosophy at that time. And
then you can't blame them in that, because I didn't come up
with them, and I don't know all the things that they went
through, but I did know that I had to protect my own self-integrity
and my feeling of worth for myself. And then, in turn, it
would help others.
Let me ask you this. Did you ever meet Medgar Evers?
He was trying to get my husband to take out his life membership
in the NAACP, about two weeks before he was killed, as I remember,
but, yes, I knew him. I didn't know his wife [that] well.
I knew his brother, Charles, because it was through my husband,
Charles Darden and Albert Jones, that, when the Klan got after
Charles when he was up there in Quitman, or somewhere--
Polk: No, no.
He was working with a funeral home at one time. And, this
was after his brother died, and he came back, that they were
going to run him out of town, and my husband and Darden and
Jones got together and gave him money, and that's when he
went to Chicago. And that's why, if you ever see Charles,
and he ever asks you about, "Do you know Dr. Polk?" He will
go into his long [liturgy], because he always said how much
he was helped in that. Because he probably would have been
killed if he had not left at that particular time, and then
he came back. So, was his brother dead then?
not when he went to Chicago.
Polk: No. The
first time he was not. But anyway, whatever he was doing,
I don't know. But I do know that he was worried about the
Klan getting after him or something, and they got together
and shipped him on away. I mean, a lot of little things come
to mind. For instance, Charles Young, you know, when McGovern
ran for president, Charles and I got together and entertained
the bus that came, eighty people that came to get people to
vote [for McGovern.] That was after all of the other things
had gone down, but when I got [to Meridian,] poll tax was
evident, and, to show you how I was committed to several things:
number one was I was committed to trying to get people to
call me--. If they called me, "Mrs." then they would do that
to other people. I would go up to pay poll tax for my husband
and myself, and the sheriff, who was Sheriff Bill Rush Mosby
at the time. I would go up there. He would say, "Here you
come, again. I told you I wasn't going to write it like that."
And I would ask him why.
"Just ain't going to do it."
Why he wouldn't write my name, "Mrs."
My husband wanted to buy a
car. He was going to get a car for me. I don't remember which
year it was. A long time ago. And I went and picked it out
at the Chrysler place and the man would call my house. He
would ask for the wife of Dr. Polk and I would say, "She is
not in." And he called, and he called. And it was [after]
six months that he realized what he needed to do.
(The interview is briefly interrupted
by a ringing telephone.)
So, it was six months.
Polk: It was
six months. And when he called about six months later and
he asked, "Could I speak to Mrs. Polk?"
I said, "This is she." But
as long as he called and asked for Dr. Polk's wife, I was
never at home. And I don't know how it got to him that that's
what he needed to do. So the day he called me, and I let him
come out and talk about the car. So, when I got the car, I
went down to get the tag. And I went to get the tag, and the
girl had written it all out.
me, I am going to stop and pause this.
(There is a brief pause in the
you go over that again, for me, about your husband and the
Polk: My husband
started practicing the latter part of forty-seven, medicine
in Meridian. He finished Howard Med School, by the way, and
Howard undergraduate school, as well. And he had to fight
for privileges at the hospital. And he didn't get privileges
until 1953. And when he got them then, it was at Anderson's
Hospital, which was the old hospital, not the new one. And
my husband had a patient who was an OB patient, whom, I understand,
had been married for about fifteen or sixteen years, and finally
was able to conceive, and she wanted Dr. Polk to deliver her
baby and he had already made arrangements with another white
doctor, he would have to refer patients to, who was Dr. Atwood
[?] who was very vocal in supporting the NAACP and all of
that. When the lady came to the hospital that night, he called
Dr. Polk and he said, "You are going to have to come. The
lady doesn't want me to wait on her." And when he came--.
The story my husband told after he came back was that Dr.
Atwood said, "We are going to have to take her upstairs, and
you are going to deliver this baby in this
hospital, this night."
Dr. Atwood was white or black?
Polk: Was white.
And they did. And Dr. Polk delivered. She did fine. And the
next day, the owner of the hospital, who was Dr. Anderson
Sr., called him in and he said, "Dr. Polk, we heard of what
happened. The reason we did not admit or say that we wish
you would apply for--" I mean, whatever you do for associate
membership at the hospital, "we thought the white nurses would
not cooperate with you." Because there were no black R.N.s
at that time. So therefore, he was admitted to the staff with
staff privileges. But the hospital was in the basement, and
the white OB/GYNs at that time didn't want him up there in
their domain. So Anderson's built him a labor room and a delivery
room down on the basement floor.
So my husband always would
tell his patients, "This is better because then you won't
precipitate on the elevator." So, he would do that. But when
St. Joseph, which was a private hospital, got ready to build
their new hospital, and they were going to build it with Hill
Burton[?] funds, they couldn't get the funds until they got
a black on the staff. The same way with Riley [Hospital.]
When Riley built their new hospital, they had to have a black
on the staff. So they got my husband. But Rush's[?] never
admitted my husband. They never did. They remained very prejudiced
until, oh until about the eighties almost, but that was the
way that that happened. Because previously, my husband did
a lot of deliveries at home and that sort of thing. And then
to protest the basement living, well, I had one of my children,
the oldest one, in Chattanooga where my mother lived. And
my husband and his nurse delivered the rest of my children
at our home. And that was our protest for having to go to
a basement. And it probably was the best thing in the world
because I have never had surgery in my life. I have been in
Meridian over forty years, and I think I was hospitalized
one time for some type of infection in which I felt like I
let me ask you about your children, Jo Lynn and Octavia?
Octavia is a woman's name.
OK. Now your children are high achievers. And I want to know
basically, they got good brain power. Maybe it's genetically.
President Thomas Jefferson? (Laughter) OK. What I want to
know is, how did you reinforce and encourage your children?
one of the ways we did, since we had five kids, we were very
family-oriented. And the activities that my children participated
in were at home. My children didn't spend the night anywhere,
in anybody else's house. One of the ways in which we encouraged
and they were able to, I guess, from the time that they were
small, we would take our vacations together at the National
Medical Association Meetings, so they would meet other achievers,
and just learn to participate and develop socially, so that
was one of the ways. And we tried to encourage church attendance,
you know, continually, and to encourage reading.
And also, when my children
were in about the ninth or tenth grade, we let all of them
do some work at my husband's office, if they did nothing but
sweep the floor. Or, my son, we would have him driving patients
to the hospitals to get x-rays or teach them all how to take
temperatures to let them know that, you know, my husband was
hoping that every last one of them would become physicians,
I think, in a way. So that was the way. Just being totally
family-oriented and trying to--. Because there weren't that
many places that were of value to go, and they would visit
other people who seemed to be good achievers, as well. And
we did have some, you know, good families around at that time,
but I think it was a matter of trying to reinforce home environment
and to reinforce intellect so much so that you would at least
want to achieve, you know, if you possibly could. And then,
there was not much out there to divert young people. At least,
it was not obvious, let's put it that way.
So what kind of reaction or problems or stimulation, do you
think the civil rights movement, the freedom riders, and things
had on your kids? I mean, as a mother.
see. That was in the sixties. You know, they were still in
school, because my last child was born in fifty-nine. I think
all of them related more to President Kennedy's death than
they did to anything. And then, Martin Luther King. The deaths
of these individuals and with questioning always: why, why,
why? You know. And, I can't remember, but since I did most
of the going, rather than they, to be able to come back to
explain to them, but we did have what we call a freedom school,
at the old Baptist seminary that I would take the children,
the ones who were old enough to go, up there just to be involved
with the other people in that realm. And then, as you know,
during the period of the sixties, that is when there was this
black power movement and the Afros and all of this. And, particularly
the first year in college is when I think that--. Because,
see, Jo Lynn, her first two years were at Carlton College.
is in Minnesota. Her first two years were there. And my son's,
all four years, were at Notre Dame, and he pleaded for a car,
because he said everybody left the campus, which we did try
to get for him, but his relationships, he had found some good
associates there, but it was still, basically, a lot of racism
at all these schools. But with Jo Lynn, seemingly she had
more trouble among some of the blacks, rather than some of
the others. I guess it's because, so often, we realize that
the way you looked during the sixties sometimes had an adverse
effect on you. So consequently, a lot of times, I tried to
keep my children free of always telling them, you know, that
no matter what a person looks like, you don't ever judge them
that way. You have to talk with them and find out where they
are coming from.
I just thought about something. Now, you can take the fifth
amendment if you want to. But, you were a community leader,
your husband was, what you call the black elite, you know,
intellectually, in terms of leadership in the community. How
did the grass roots black community view you and your children
and the doctor?
most of the people in the community, we had no problem with
them. Had no problems, because the people really respected
and loved my husband. I'd say the grass roots people, because
my husband, the one thing that I can say about him was, that
he treated people whether they paid him or not, and he helped
others. But, you knew there was probably some innate jealousy
around in the community and you didn't worry about it, and
you just told your children to treat everybody like you want
to be treated. And if they did otherwise, well then you would
know to try to go around another route. Because all of my
children are very affable. I mean, I think. And I have always
had a way that I would just speak to everybody, whether I
knew them or not. You know. And if they didn't respond, that
was all right, and if they did, wonderful. So I still do that
because I love life and love people. And I just enjoy living.
one is the most militant of your kids? Out of your five? The
one that really didn't take no mess.
up, I think my daughter who is in junior college administration
was the one. Now she went to Brown. And I think she was more
militant than the others.
what is her name again.
Polk: Her name
is Anita. She is in Chattanooga, but I think that the social
life at Brown, and going on, so she didn't do as well as we
knew that she could do, so we just brought her back from that
environment because she was wanting to be engrossed in the
sororities and that sort of thing, and we thought that she
should at least stick with what she was there for, at least
for the first two years. I had a brother who was working at
the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and we told her
to go there, and to go to school. And she worked and finished
there. She came home first and worked in our office, and then
she went there and got her Bachelor's degree and then got
a fellowship to study at the University of Tennessee at Tullahoma
Institute and then got a Master's degree in science engineering.
And then she worked for TVA with maps and remote sensing and
a whole lot of stuff, and then she got burned out. And that
is when she decided to go into teaching. You didn't have to
be militant in a black school, you know. You just got your
work. [In] Jo Lynn's class [(my oldest daughter), there were
many] smart students, and they were all friends, that had
such a large number of smart students in a particular class.
Because one of her very good friends is worldwide known. She
and her husband are architects and from Atlanta.
who is that?
Love-Stanley. They have an architectural firm. She is from
Meridian. She has been in Ebony and all over a lot,
but I'm just giving that as one example of the high- caliber
students that were [at Harris] and see, you didn't really
have to be militant, as such, to achieve in that school. But
[at Meridian High], now my son, so the principal told me,
that he knew he enjoyed out there at the school. My son was
the type, when he was in high school, he didn't have to study.
But he is a student who knows how to study.
And he could study while you were playing and a lot of people
couldn't understand that. But he said he could turn people
off, so he studied. So he concentrated and enjoyed himself,
but at the same time, when he was at Notre Dame, there were
fifteen blacks, I think there were. But I think only three
finished the medical course. I might be incorrect as far as
figures are concerned, but I just think that it was a matter
of knowing that we were achievers, knowing that my grandparents,
they had some good heritage that they come from. My husband's
people were landowners in Prentiss, Mississippi, and all of
the family members have shown evidence of at least a, what
should I say? That genetics has proven that there is some
good brain power within both sides of the family, and I say
that because a lot of times, people think that--. I believe
that you have to have something to start with. You can't develop
a brain if you don't have something up there.
there anything else that you think that we didn't cover that
defines the movement in Meridian? That says what happened
and where we are going?
I think the greatest achievement the movement got, to me,
was they were able to come up with the Head Start program
that employed a lot of people who were not learned. People
who would not have been able to work in a school at that time,
because most of the people who were hired from Head Start
were not learned and the other thing is when I first went
to Meridian, I found out that only the high school people
had finished college. And the principal, one other principal
and myself were the only three at that time who had an advanced
degree. Consequently, we had a Jackson College Extension Center
in Meridian during, it was in 1960. Well it had been there,
let me see, seventy-one, sixty-nine through fifty. Well, whenever
they closed it. But anyway, it provided two years for--
that at Harris High School?
Polk: It was
[on the same campus] with Harris High School, but they used
Army barracks and had a separate facility there. Dr. Cleopatra
Thompson, who left Meridian and went to Jackson State, she
was the director, and I helped work there also. It was on
the Harris campus, but we were able to provide two years of
college for the teachers because we were open on Saturdays
and all through the summer. Then they could transfer to Jackson
State. And Dr. Reddix was president at that time. So that
was a great service that was offered to a lot of teachers
who, the salaries were so low, they didn't have enough money
to [go] away, so, I thought that was a good thing that took
place in Meridian. The other thing was getting a lot of people
registered to vote and trying to get them motivated
to vote. A lot of people would register because you tried
to get them and take them and help them, but when it came
time, sometimes, to really [vote], it took a lot to get people
[to go the polls and vote.]
(End of interview.)