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

Office of Research employee Toyia Polk aims to live the lessons her late father, civil rights activist Elmore Nickelberry, taught her.

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.”

Nickelberry 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.

You were a child when your father was a sanitation worker. Were you aware before he went on strike it was a dangerous thing for him to do?

Yes, and no. I don’t remember anyone explaining the strike to me, I just knew there was something going on with his job that required him taking part in the march. I also knew that it had to be something bad because everyone talking about it seemed sad and kept commenting on how Black people were not being treated fairly. My father said he was going to march with Dr. King to make things better for us. Well, my 6-year-old self went on to play outside, until we began to hear shots from downtown. My grandmother and great-grandmother lived a few blocks from the UT Health Science Center campus on Leath Street. When the shots began to ring out, my grandmother called us in the house and told us to be quiet. I remember I was really scared and asked what was going to happen to daddy, because he was downtown.

You have described your father as “the bravest soldier I know,” and as someone who “gave me the armor to carry on.”  Where do you think his courage and perseverance came from? How did he pass this on to you?

His courage and perseverance came from his father and uncles. Also, his time served in the Korean War. He passed these qualities on to me by setting the example that standing up for what is right in the midst of adversity is not easy. But right is always right and wrong is always wrong, no matter the color of your skin.

Polk said her father never sought attention, but simply sought peace and justice.

So much has been written about your father, his life, and work. What is something about him that people might not know that you wish everyone knew?

Despite all the notoriety, he was a very quiet man with great dignity. The spotlight was not what he was striving for. He was all about peace and justice.

Tell us about your favorite memory of your father.

My father drove the school bus (part time) for many years. He had two or three bus routes. I remember some mornings he would have my mother put a wet towel and soap in a Ziplock bag, so he could clean the faces of the children whose parents did not have the time or resources to do so. He would also make the kids behave on his bus and tell them to act good in school. Through the years, some of those students have stopped us on the streets and thanked daddy for being there and keeping them out of trouble. During his recent memorial visitation, a young man told us that those bus rides to school saved his life.

Your father’s story gained national recognition and he became a symbol of the struggle for civil rights in America. You traveled with him as he received numerous awards and honors from national and world leaders. Which of those moments stood out for you the most?

The moment that stood out to me the most is when we were invited to the White House in 2011. We met President Obama and the First Lady. I was in awe of all the celebrations and celebrities we got to meet. But the mere fact that my dad was honored in the White House was when I discovered this thing with dad is big.

What else would you like us to know about your father?

My father was big on children getting an education and making something of themselves. He understood that all are not college material. However, he enforced in all of us to work hard, do the right thing, and right will follow you.

The video with this story was produced by Amber Dean, communications and marketing coordinator for the Office of Research.