My racial awakening
By Hattie B. Polk
Editor’s note: The following is the 13th narrative accepted for publication in the Advocate’s South Carolina Stories of Racial Awakening Project. Submit your own narrative and receive $50. See guidelines, here.
I was born in 1926 in Horry County. My father was a farmer. He was cultured, well-educated for his day, a man of Christian faith, a local preacher, respected by all who knew him. Mama was a schoolteacher, a woman of faith and a woman of her generation.
Blacks on our farm helped in the fields and our home; they were kindly treated but strictly servants. They drank pot liquor from our vegetables and ate skimming from our jelly-making. They walked to rundown schools as we passed in our school bus.
Growing up, it never occurred to me to question this; it was just the way life was.
After leaving Columbia College to marry my preacher (Rev. Charles Polk), I attended a United Methodist Women’s seminar there taught by the late Rev. Fred Reese, where I was awakened to the reality of my blindness.
The issue was how we paid for service in our homes—of course, as little as possible. This affected me greatly, and I was moved to increase my pay. News spread quickly because black women all over town began asking for pay increases. This did not suit women in the small community, and they all began complaining that this Methodist preacher’s wife was “over-stepping her bounds.” I refused to change my payment, learning that other servants soon received the benefits.
In 1966, after three years at Grace Methodist Church, Union, we were sent to Bethel Methodist, Walterboro. Bishop Hardin told the congregation he had a special job for us: to help smooth racial unrest and work to merge black and white conferences. Racial demonstrations, sit-ins and deep-seated trouble hit the community, especially the schools. Our church was deeply divided. Blacks threatened to come to our church, and men stood out front Sunday morning making sure they weren’t successful.
One day, my principal at Hampton Street Elementary said, “Thanksgiving is coming, and I am inviting an African student for the holidays. I want to invite him to First Baptist, but knowing my congregation, I cannot. Since Methodists are more inclusive, I thought we could attend there.”
I was so proud that my church would welcome this student; I told my principal I was sure he would be welcome. I came home, eagerly awaiting Charles’ return.
To my dismay, he did not share my enthusiasm. After a long pause, he said, “We cannot do this—it would split the church, possibly undoing our progress.
I was shattered. How could I tell my principal my church would not welcome his friend?
Charles said, “I have an idea. We will have missionary night and invite this young man to speak.”
Indignant, I replied, “If the church of Jesus Christ cannot invite this student to worship just as any other person, I will have no part in demeaning him by inviting him as a missionary.”
With the burden of pastoring a divided church, Charles knew it would do great harm to his efforts to encourage the church along the path of greater inclusion. Timing was just not right.
For several summers in Walterboro, I taught Head Start, a new program for the underprivileged, mostly black. For the first time, I saw a level of deprivation I never knew existed. We had served only churches near the heart of towns and cities, and now I realized how separated we were from large segments of our community. I immediately began to highlight their plight.
Not long afterwards, I ran into my brother in Charleston, who was there as lay delegate to annual conference. Right there on the street corner, he said, “I am ashamed to call you my sister.”
I worked with the young adult class at Bethel, and when land was offered to the class free for a baseball field to be named the UM Christian Ball Park, the owner’s only requirement was that no blacks be allowed.
Strongly objecting, I replied, “If you accept this land, please take my Christ’s name away.”
This outburst immediately reached “the powers that be.” Charles was confronted, since they assumed a preacher’s wife spoke for the preacher. He defended me, ensuring them I had a mind of my own and, as a church member, had every right to express it.
In 1970, against the backdrop of the civil rights struggle, the merger of black and white conferences was under way. Charles was selected to serve the Marion District, and I became the wife of my family’s district superintendent.
Eager to share the news, I asked, “Mama, aren’t you proud of Charles?”
She answered, “Yes, but I didn’t want him to be our DS.” She was not in favor of the merger.
However, the merger was complete. I was thrilled to witness the vote that finally proved success in the first step toward racial justice on Jan. 27, 1972, in Township Auditorium, Columbia.
But the hard work had just begun. We had to stand up for civil rights in a special way in Marion. Many white families abandoned our public schools, starting an explosion of private segregated options. Some in my family bought land so their children could avoid being “pulled down.” To their surprise, their children demanded to stay.
Our son and children of Rev. Jack Meadows, later named bishop, were some of the few who continued to support the public system. They might have paid a short, temporary academic price, but they gained so much more in character.
Serving the Marion District provided fertile ground for the next step in the challenge ahead. After the first cabinet meeting following the merger, no black was included. Bishop Tullis quickly reconvened the group to reconsider their task. Soon, the conference had four new black superintendents to serve beside eight whites. Districts were reorganized, crossing racial lines.
One church in our district immediately left the UMC. Through Charles’ patience, without judgment, to meet them where they were and stretch their Christian understanding, shortly after we left the district that church once again was United Methodist.
These experiences undergird me as I continue to confront injustice wherever it rears its ugly head.
Polk, 90, served with her late husband for 40 years in South Carolina Methodist and United Methodists churches. She is now active in First UMC, Waynesville, North Carolina, and the Reconciling Ministries Network.