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UTHSC News: Veteran Employee Shares Memories of Her Father, Civil Rights Activist Elmore Nickelberry


Thirty years on the job at UT Health Science Center has not dimmed Toyia Polk’s desire to shine in her profession.

A business manager for clinical research in the Office of Research, Polk says her dedication to hard work is part of the legacy left by her father, Elmore Nickelberry, a Memphis hero of the Civil Rights Movement, who died recently.

“My father instilled in me that a good work ethic should be a part of your character,” she says. “For me, that means showing up to work on time, putting your best foot forward, doing your best work, and being polite.”

Nickleberry was one of the Memphis sanitation workers who went on strike in 1968 to fight for fair wages, safer working conditions, and treatment with dignity. He died on December 30 at the age of 92.

He was one of the last surviving sanitation workers who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King during the strike that led to Dr. King’s assassination. He continued his work for the City of Memphis sanitation department for over 60 years, becoming a symbol of resilience and determination and remaining an active participant in civil rights throughout his life.

Nickelberry was often invited to speak at universities, schools, and events, where he shared his experiences and emphasized the importance of fighting for equality and justice.  He was also featured in the 2009 documentary film “I Am A Man: From Memphis, A Lesson in Life.” He was a guest speaker at UT Health Science Center in 2011 as part of Black History Month events.

“I hope I’m a star at what I do here working for the Office of Research. I hope that I’ve touched the lives of my friends here at UT Health Science Center in some way, just as my father did at his job,” Polk says. “He never set out to become as popular as he did, or to become this big person. He was just going to work.”

Polk was kind enough to answer questions and share memories about her father.

Read more at our UTHSC news site.