When the Rev. Robert L. Polk came to North Dakota to serve the Congregational church in Berthold in the 1950s, North Dakota had an African-American population of 46 people, according to the 1950 census.
“I made the 47th when I was there,” said Polk, in a phone interview with The Minot Daily News June 13.
“When I was there Hal Davies was the owner of The Minot Daily News,” he recalled. The Davies and Dobson families owned the newspaper at the time.
Polk, now 86, retired in 1997 and lives in a retirement village in Philadelphia, He recently completed a biography, “Crossing Barriers & Building Bridges.”
The book covers Polk’s journey from the South side of Chicago to Berthold and Minot, and then to Riverside Church in New York City. He also served as Dean of Chapel at Dillard University, an historically black college in New Orleans, and many other places in between. He was working to bring folks together and not allow prejudice to interfere with a deeper understanding of “the other,” according to a news release.
Reflecting on when he first came to North Dakota, Polk said, in the phone interview, “I was ordained in 1955 and then I went to Berthold in October of 1955. Berthold was a little town of about 400 people back in those days. It had no running water or paved streets,” he said. The July 2013 U.S. Census estimated Berthold now with 485 people.
“It was an experimental kind of thing” to see whether a church with a small membership was able to sustain a full-time minister, Polk said. “After the second year they realized they couldn’t.”
Polk had been in North Dakota earlier when the superintendent of the Congregational churches in North Dakota asked him to come to the state to do a summer pastorate in Garrison.
For three months in 1952 he was in Garrison working with the minister of the church and his family as a summer student internship at the Congregational church. “So he knew me and he knew of my work. He knew I did not want to go south.”
Later, the superintendent asked Polk, “well, if I find a church will you come?”
“I said, ‘certainly I’d come.’ So he found this church and about a month and a half before I was to be ordained I had a call from the church, inviting me to be their pastor. That’s how I got there (to Berthold),” Polk said.
Polk said when he was in Berthold some of the more progressive college students read in The Minot Daily News and also by word of mouth about his presence in the Berthold.
“They would come to visit me and I would go to Minot to visit patients in the hospital for my parish and so forth, where I got to know people in Minot. This is why it was my second stop,” he said.
Polk was in North Dakota when Minot Air Force Base was being built and opening.
“The blacks in Minot were basically three or four black men who were the owners of the prostitution houses there on Third Street and most of the prostitutes in Minot were black,” Polk said. “It was a testy situation in terms of trying to get people to be more open to people’s color when the base was finished,” he said.
Two years after being at the Berthold church, the board of trustees and general secretary of the Minot YMCA asked Polk to become the youth director at the Minot YMCA, then located in downtown Minot.
“I was asked to come there because they wanted to make Minot a more diverse community and interracial community with the air base opening. They were opening the air base when I was there,” he said.
Polk’s job was to be the youth director of the YMCA. He was active in the Minot community and belonged to the Kiwanis Club.
He also spoke to various groups and organizations in trying to bridge the gap between military members of various races who would come to the base.
Polk was with the Minot YMCA for three years from 1957 to 1960.
The Minot YMCA was “the place to be” for Minot teens, Polk said. “That place was a humming place, believe me.” He said the high school was just down the street from the YMCA and Joel Davy was its principal.
Polk served as the second youth director of the YMCA. With close to 400 junior and senior high school YMCA members, he and lay volunteers carried out a dynamic teen program of Hi-Y, Tri-Hi-Y and Jr. Hi-Y. “The kids flocked there at noon for lunch,” he said.
Bill Blore, of Minot, said Polk definitely was a positive influence on many young people in the Minot community including him. He said the YMCA became their place and Polk welcomed them to it. Blore was around junior high school age when Polk was youth director at the YMCA.
Besides the activities for the youth that he led at the YMCA, he said Polk also exposed them to the world outside of the community.
“He took a group of us to Chicago (Polk’s hometown) to his neighborhood. He wanted to show us that there was life outside Minot,” Blore said.
Although the kids who came to the YMCA probably didn’t know Polk’s religion, “he was a deeply religious man. There was no question about his faith,” Blore said.
“He was probably one of the greatest influences on my life,” Blore noted.
He said Polk is very, very modest and a humble man who does not flaunt his achievements.
“As a student at Minot Senior High School from the fall of 1957 through graduation in the spring of 1960 the Y was my main focal point,” said Bob Wefald, of Bismarck. “It was a warm and welcoming place for all of us kids and Bob Polk, the Y youth director, made it happen for me. I liked him when I first met him and I’ve been glad that we have been friends through all the years as I’ve seen him or had lunch with him every few years since 1960. He was always friendly to me and all the rest of us kids. He emphasized ‘Hi-Y’ which we enjoyed as a special club just for us. We had dances at the Y and I loved to swim in the Y pool, but that was a different era and it would never happen again today. That’s because all males swam without swimsuits, and men and boys swam together.
“I’d often see Bob when I had lunch at the Y Grill run by Rich Colton who served great cheeseburgers and wonderful curly fries. The main floor of the Y was divided with offices between the two sections, with the south area being for us kids and the north area being for the adults. Bob’s office was right there in the middle so we could easily get to him, and he liked to kid around with us. He always made me feel special and I know lots of us felt the same way. Bob was the first black man I ever knew, which was a rare thing in the late 1950s in Minot. Being his friend was a wonderful introduction to racial relationships as I grew older and traveled far away from North Dakota in the Navy.”
Among his stories about YMCA days in Minot, Polk recalled when he chaperoned 22 junior high school boys from Minot to New York City for a week.
“They mapped out all they wanted to do in New York City and we did it all,” he said, adding that the visit included watching Roger Maris, a North Dakota boy, play with the New York Yankees. “It was just a great experience,” he said.
The Minot group also attended a communion Sunday service at Riverside Church in June 1960. Because they had no reservation, they were in the second balcony where the ushers and deacons passed the communion trays down the aisles. “When we were coming back between Chicago and Minot, one of the kids awoke me to tell me he had something important to tell me but I couldn’t tell anybody,” Polk said.
To make a long story short, four of the boys took the individual silver communion chalices in their pockets. Polk attempted to find out who did it and why they did it. “To this day, I have no idea who they were,” he said.
Two weeks later, Polk said he received a letter from Riverside Church as he was leaving for Minnesota with another group of kids for a canoe trip. He decided not to open the letter because he thought it might be about the missing communion cups. He would wait until he returned to “face the music.” When he returned and opened the letter, it asked him if he’d be interested in becoming the youth minister at the church. Polk went to New York for an interview, accepted the position and returned to Minot to resign from his YMCA job.
“I had a magnificent time there for those years with the YMCA,” Polk said.
He said his work in Berthold and Minot really was the start of his career. “It really was,” he emphasized.
He said the Minot YMCA and its programs had developed into a facility that was “so essential to the lives of younger people as well as older people in the City of Minot.”
Polk keeps in contact with a number of local or former local residents. He has returned to Minot several times since he moved from the city in 1960, including for an anniversary of the Congregational church in Minot, funerals and Norsk Hostfest.
Polk’s book can be ordered by emailing him at email@example.com or calling him at 215-984-8929 or 215-313-5722.