Powerful autobiography by nonagenarian pioneer

by Len Lear
Posted 2/2/23

At 94 years old, the Rev. Robert L. Polk – who recently published his third book – has always been a pioneer.

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Powerful autobiography by nonagenarian pioneer


At 94 years old, the Rev. Robert L. Polk – who recently published his third book, a compelling autobiography titled “Fly in the Buttermilk: One Black Man's Odyssey” – has always been a pioneer.

For the past 19 years, Polk has lived at Cathedral Village in upper Roxborough, at times as the only  Black resident among the more than 400 retirees living there. But that situation is nothing new for Polk. In 1955, he was named the pastor of the Congregational Church of Berthold, N.D., thus becoming the only Black person in the entire town. In fact, according to U.S. Census records, the entire state of North Dakota had only 47 Black residents just before Polk arrived, so his presence increased that number to 48.

“Friends, former colleagues at the YMCA and students with whom I have kept in touch, as well as those who are over 60 years, have heard the stories of what it was like to be out there and they are often surprised,” Polk said. “As one friend put it, 'It was like being a reverse missionary: a Negro going to work with and among white people, rather than the opposite.'” 

Polk was born in 1928 in Chicago. After his early education in public schools there, he attended Doane University in Crete, Neb., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and later received an honorary doctorate of divinity. He earned a masters of divinity degree from Hartford Theological Seminary in Connecticut, and in 1955, he was ordained to Christian ministry in his hometown congregation, Lincoln Memorial Congregational Church. He then went off to minister to the all-white church in North Dakota. Several members left the church when they realized they had a Black pastor.

“I felt I had a gift of working with white people,” Polk said, “I had so many encounters, in a way that perhaps helped change their thinking and attitudes about race and social justice issues. I was always aware of the struggle and felt equal to the task – for the most part.”

Polk also served as the youth program secretary at the YMCA in Minot, N.D., from 1957 to 1960. He was responsible for the supervision of all services and programs for young people and also conducted seminars on racism and lectured and preached throughout the community.

According to the Judge Robert Wefald, of the North Dakota State District Court, “As an American of 100% Norwegian ancestry, growing up in lily-white Minot, N.D., I can tell you that Bob made a positive and long-lasting impression on me as the first Black man I ever knew. We became lifelong friends.”

In 1960, Polk was called to New York to serve as the minister to youth at Riverside Church in Manhattan for six years, becoming the first minister of color – a fact which sparked prominent coverage in the New York Times. He eventually retired, living in Connecticut and later moving to Cathedral Village after researching retirement communities in the region. 

Polk has worked tirelessly in his ministry and his activism to bring people of all races and religions together in compassion and mutual understanding. These efforts are all recounted in his new book. 

The book was published by Compray House in Amherst, Mass. Roy L. Lloyd, executive editor of Compray House, told us, “Bob is an absolutely amazing person. I respect him deeply, and more importantly, I love him. He is just the best of the best!”

When asked how racial issues have changed since he was young, Polk told the Local, “During the civil rights movement and era, we worked hard to bring about positive changes for Blacks in our country. The work was difficult, and at best, changes were only incremental, but nevertheless we did it boldly. We worked diligently and helped bring about some positive changes in racial justice, especially for Black people. Liberals, progressives, Blacks and whites working together towards a just and egalitarian society was our common goal. 

“During the past six years, however, I am appalled by where we are today on such issues! It is as if we have retreated dreadfully to those prior days before the civil rights movement,” he continued. “It seems to me that we have grown openly anti-Black, anti-Semitic, anti-Asian and more recently, anti-LGBQ. This is unacceptable. Now people of good will are called upon now to work harder to defeat and subjugate these new forces of evil. Six years short of turning 100, I remain optimistic, but not as much as I used to be.”

Rev. Polk has authored two other books, “Crossing Barriers & Building Bridges, a memoir” and “Tight Little Island,” a collection of essays about West Woodlawn, the community where Polk grew up on Chicago's South Side. “Fly in the Buttermilk: One Black Man's Odyssey” is available at booked or through amazon.com. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com