An Oral History

With

Evelyn Dorsey Polk

Interviewer: Donald Williams

Tougaloo College Archives

This interview was transcribed as part of the Civil Rights Documentation Project.

Funding for this project was provided in part by the Mississippi

Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and

the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

1998

Biography

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.

Table of Contents

Higher education 1

Church membership 2

Civil rights groups and organizations 3

Freedom riders 3

Underground newspaper 3

Integration of Meridian High School 5

Important contributors to the Meridian civil

rights movement during the sixties 7

Grandfather, J.G. Higgins, invents straightening comb 7

Mississippi State Representative Charles Young Jr. 8

Reverend Duncan Gray forms a group to

process school integration issues with parents 9

Concerned Citizens group 9

Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner 10

Dr. O.D. Polk Sr. is first black on the Meridian School Board

and on the American Red Cross Board 11

The struggle for black women to be called Mrs. or

Miss rather than by first name 12

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 20

ORAL HISTORY

with

EVELYN DORSEY POLK

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).

Williams: Where were you born?

Polk: Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Williams: What's your date of birth?

Polk: (Gasping) Terrible! November 12, 1919. My birthday just passed.

Williams: OK. Have you lived any place other than Meridian?

Polk: Yes. Washington, D.C.; Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Those are the only two places I had made my residences.

Williams: When 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.]

Williams: And what did you major in at Fisk?

Polk: History. [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.

Williams: OK. And when were you in Winston-Salem?

Polk: From 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.]

Williams: Forty-six.

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.

Williams: OK. 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 Baptist Church.]

Williams: New Hope. That was Reverend--

Polk: --Inge. I joined under him.

Williams: OK. And when was that, would you think?

Polk: Let's see. In the seventies.

Williams: Now 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 Congregational Church.

Williams: And, 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.

Williams: OK. 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 dissolved.

Williams: OK. So during the sixties, you were at St. Paul? During the civil rights movement?

Polk: Yes. [But also attended New Hope Baptist.]

Williams: Did you belong to any civil rights groups or organizations?

Polk: Well, 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 our town.

Williams: When 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.

Williams: Do 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.

Williams: And 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.

Williams: OK. Now what was your son's name who used to deliver the papers?

Polk: He was Octavius Douglas Polk Jr.

Williams: Octavius. How do you spell Octavius?

Polk: O-C-T-A-V-I-U-S. They called him O.D. Just O.D. Polk Jr.

Williams: And, when he would deliver the papers, where would he deliver them?

Polk: Within 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.

Williams: Now you said she was from the North.

Polk: Yes. 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.

Williams: Do you remember any other of the volunteers who came in from the North?

Polk: Well, of course, I knew the three boys who--

(A telephone call briefly interrupts the interview.)

Polk: Well, 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.

Williams: What was your husband's name?

Polk: He was senior. My son was junior.

Williams: Octavius, is he a physician now as well?

Polk: My son is a physician, yes.

Williams: And 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 medicine.

Williams: OK. Do you have any other children?

Polk: Yes. You know, you met my daughter here. She is a specialist in physical medicine [and rehabilitation.]

Williams: Jo Lynn.

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 legislative aide.

Williams: Where did she go to undergraduate school?

Polk: She went to Howard. Yes, so she was in Washington a good while. Until she got married.

Williams: And 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.

Williams: What's her name?

Polk: Her name is Shari, S-H-A-R-I.

Williams: Shari Polk.

Polk: Yes.

Williams: OK. So you had one son and four daughters.

Polk: Yes.

Williams: Where did your children attend high school in Meridian?

Polk: Well, 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 out there.

Williams: Do you remember what year your son first attended [Meridian High]?

Polk: Well, let's see, he finished in seventy-one, so--whatever--I mean, I'm not good at figures.

Williams: Is it a four-year curriculum?

Polk: Correct.

Williams: So, 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.]

Williams: And what did he major in at Notre Dame?

Polk: Well, he followed a pre-med course and they had it all outlined, so when he finished Notre Dame, he was admitted to med school.

Williams: OK. 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--

Polk: Well, 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.

Williams: OK. Can you go over a little of that for me? You know, just what happened?

Polk: Well, 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 trouble.

Williams: So 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.

Williams: Now, how many of your children actually went to Meridian High?

Polk: Meridian High? Four.

Williams: OK. Let me ask you this. Who do you think were important contributors during the--

Polk: What do you mean, in the community?

Williams: Yes ma'am, during the sixties when things were integrated.

Polk: Several 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.

Williams: Yes 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?

Polk: Well. 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.]

Williams: Your grandfather had invented a straightening comb?

Polk: A straightening comb. Yes.

Williams: What was your grandfather's name?

Polk: J.G. 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.

Williams: OK. Now, I have interviewed Charles Young. Tell me a little bit about Mr. Young.

Polk: The father or the son?

Williams: Let's go with Senior.

Polk: Well, 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.

Williams: OK, 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.

Williams: Yes. 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 Meridian?

Polk: Well, 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.]

Williams: Do 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 woman."

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 Citizens.

Williams: OK. 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.

Williams: Where was your husband's [medical] office located?

Polk: 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.

Williams: OK. 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, mostly.

Williams: So, when you say philosophically--

Polk: About 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.

Williams: This was at Harris School?

Polk: Yes. 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 think.

Williams: What 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.

Williams: Now, since you mention that: were there any boycotts of merchants and things in Meridian?

Polk: Only 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.

Williams: We're going to put you on a Web site and you are going around the world.

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 do that."

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."

Williams: Was she black or white?

Polk: She was black.

Williams: Could you give me her name? That's important.

Polk: I'd rather not because she is deceased.

Williams: Well, this is for an historical purpose.

Polk: Well, 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 it.

Williams: Al Fielder, is that their son?

Polk: That was his mother.

Williams: I am going to interview Al Fielder.

Polk: Well, 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.

Williams: Fantastic. Let me ask you this. Did you ever meet Medgar Evers?

Polk: Yes. 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--

Williams: Decatur?

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?

Williams: No, 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.)

Williams: OK. 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.

Williams: Excuse me, I am going to stop and pause this.

(There is a brief pause in the interview.)

Williams: Could you go over that again, for me, about your husband and the hospital--.

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."

Williams: And 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 was incarcerated.

Williams: Now, let me ask you about your children, Jo Lynn and Octavia?

Polk: Octavius. Octavia is a woman's name.

Williams: Octavius is your?

Polk: Son.

Williams: Son, OK. Now your children are high achievers. And I want to know how--

Polk: Well, basically, they got good brain power. Maybe it's genetically. (Laughter)

Williams: Well, President Thomas Jefferson? (Laughter) OK. What I want to know is, how did you reinforce and encourage your children?

Polk: Well, 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.

Williams: Yes. 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.

Polk: Let's 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.

Williams: Where is Carlton?

Polk: Carlton 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.

Williams: Yes. 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?

Polk: Well, 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.

Williams: Which one is the most militant of your kids? Out of your five? The one that really didn't take no mess.

Polk: Growing 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.

Williams: And 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.

Williams: And who is that?

Polk: Ivenue 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.

Williams: Is 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?

Polk: Well, 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--

Williams: Was 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.)

 
 

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