Born on June 13, 1939 in Memphis, Tennessee, James K. Polk moved to Peoria with his family as a young child, part of the Great Migration of six million African Americans who left the rural South for the urban Northeast, Midwest and West in the mid-20th century. After successfully battling polio and other health issues, he earned a slot as an all-state basketball player at Peoria High School before graduating in 1957. He served a brief stint as vice president of Peoria’s NAACP chapter then moved to California, where he worked for General Motors, attended community college, met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and got his first taste of politics.
After returning to Peoria, Polk launched his own political career with an unsuccessful bid for the Peoria City Council in 1969. Three years later, he won election to the Peoria County Board, serving from 1972 to 1976 and again from 1982 to 1985. The same year, he avenged his earlier defeat by becoming the first African American elected to the Peoria City Council. Polk worked for CILCO and ran the YWCA Ashanti Umojia Youth Center before joining Caterpillar in 1974. In the decades since his retirement from Cat in 1986, he’s founded several businesses and been a community leader in diversity issues, working to help others understand that everyone is entitled to equal rights and equal protection.
Polk has been involved with a lengthy list of organizations and associations throughout his career, including Illinois Central College, CityLink, Peoria Civic Center Authority, Boys & Girls Clubs, the American Community College Trustee Association and the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission. He was twice elected to National Democratic Conventions, served as a consultant to former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, and was downstate chair of Carol Moseley-Braun’s successful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1992. A 2014 inductee into the African American Hall of Fame, Polk has received a series of honors and awards, a proud testament to the fulfillment of his late mother’s desire that he give back to his community.
Tell me about the early years of your life.
I was born in Memphis, Tennessee. We moved to Peoria in 1943 because we had family here; my uncle owned a bar and a couple hotels. Caterpillar was doing the war [effort] and was hiring… and a lot of African Americans came up from the South because there were jobs here. Caterpillar was making equipment and tractors for the Army and the armed forces.
I had polio when I was four, and I was sort of paralyzed in my arms and legs… I had it when we lived in Memphis, then we moved here and I still had problems with my legs… Then when I was about eight or nine, I had childhood rheumatoid arthritis. When I was 11 or 12, my polio sort of subsided. I got better and I was able to play sports. In fact, I was an all-state basketball player when I was at Peoria High School.
Did your father get a job with Caterpillar?
Yes, he worked there for 40 years. He worked in the foundry and also in the proving grounds; he drove tractors… kept them clean and that kind of stuff. My mother… was a supervisor at the Jefferson Building…She had a good job… and always [instilled] the work ethic into my brother and me. She always said, “You don’t give up—you keep fighting.”
[My parents] always said… you have to work hard and give back. “God blessed you”—my mother would say that all the time. I used to hear her praying that if God made me well, I had to give back to the community. So that’s what I’ve always done.
Now when your dad started at Caterpillar, that was a time when there weren’t many African Americans in the workforce…
During the war was when they started hiring black people... My other uncles moved to California… They used to make ships in the shipyards out there. One of my aunts and her husband lived here—that was when Peoria was “wide open”… My uncle worked for Bris Collins [Carbristo “Bris” Collins, a businessman and fixture in Peoria’s underground economy of the 1950s and ‘60s] and ran some of his bars and stuff. I used to deliver papers downtown. My brother had [the route] before me, and Keith Kelley, who played pro baseball with the Dodgers—one of the first blacks out of this area to turn pro. So he had it four years, then my brother for four, then I had it for four. The downtown route. It was great because they all paid in the office; you didn’t have to collect.
Maloof Cleaners was right by City Hall—that’s how I first met [Jim Maloof]. Right across the street was the Jefferson Building where my mother worked, so everyone would say, well, that’s Nellie’s boy. Nellie Polk was my mother. At Christmastime, I would give out cards and I used to get about $400, $500. That was a lot of money for a guy my age—a kid. I loved that route!
So that’s how you first got to know a lot of the city leaders?
Oh yes. A lot of them used to say—when I first got into politics—I remember when you were my paperboy!
How did you end up in California?
I had aunts and uncles who moved out there. They were entrepreneurs; they owned two restaurants and a senior citizen home. I left Peoria because there were jobs out there. I worked for Hunt’s Cannery, tomato canning for one season… then I got hired at General Motors in Fremont, across the bay from San Francisco, close to Oakland. I worked my way up and ended up being a foreman. I worked for General Motors from ’61 to ’67, when I moved back here.
Did you attend college out there?
I never graduated from college, but I took a lot of courses, and I went a couple years at Contra Costa Community College.
Did that experience inspire your support for Illinois Central College later in life?
It did. I’m a believer in community college, and I’m a believer in education. I have six kids; we have a blended family. My wife had two kids and I had four. They all finished college. The youngest, my wife’s son… he’s finishing college. My oldest son was killed in a car wreck in 1989, but he was going to Northeast Missouri State; I think it’s Truman State now.
Why did you move back to Peoria?
I got into politics out there. I had a friend who was running for Congress… His wife wanted him to move—he was from New York and his wife wanted him to move back… but he wouldn’t go. And her father died before she had a chance to see him a last time. So I moved back to Peoria to be near family.
That was kind of near the height of the Civil Rights Movement?
Yes. I was involved in the Civil Rights Movement in California, too. There was an organization, the Afro-American Association. A lot of people who were part of that ended up leaving and started the Black Panthers. Huey Newton… I knew them out there. One morning, I woke up and looked at the TV and there they were in Sacramento with these guns. Back then, you could carry a gun, but it couldn’t be loaded. So Huey Newton and all those guys, they were an offshoot of the Afro-American Association. Then a lot of them got more militant.
Did you know them very well?
I wasn’t real close or anything like that, but I knew them because we had meetings and stuff like that. That’s the first time I ever met Dr. [Martin Luther] King. I met him a few times when he used to come to San Francisco to speak. One of my uncles was pastor of a big church in Richmond, California, so when Dr. King came, I had a connection, but he didn’t really know me. I met him and heard him speak and that type of thing.
Before I left Peoria, John Gwynn and I took over the Peoria NAACP. I was vice president—I was probably 21. There were a lot of young people back then in the movement. I worked for Pabst Brewing Company for seasonal work. They hired a lot of people during the peak season in the summertime... Harry Sephus was president of the NAACP at that particular time, and we felt that he wasn’t radical enough, so we… John and I—we took over the NAACP. The NAACP was really important and really active back then.
Tell us about some of your activities after you returned to Peoria from California.
I immediately got involved with politics. I ran for public office for the first time in 1969… This was for the [Peoria] City Council. In fact, I ran as a Republican… Of course at that time, the city was pretty wide open; there was a lot of gambling and stuff. Some of the politicians and bar owners didn’t support me because they said I was “too honest.” They wanted to keep the [underground economy]… I lost in the end.
That was your first experience running for office?
Yes. But out in California, the guy who was running for Congress, I ran his campaign... That’s when I started getting involved. Back then, of course everybody knew Willie Brown, mayor of San Francisco. I used to go to San Francisco all the time; they had a lot of jazz. I used to go over for Miles Davis, [John] Coltrane and all of them... In Richmond, California, where I lived, they had their first black mayor. When I came back here in ’69 was the first election that I ran in.
Did you start working for Caterpillar right when you moved back?
No, I worked for CILCO and I also worked for the YWCA—I ran the Ashanti Umojia Youth Center, a black cultural center down by the Labor Temple… I worked for Caterpillar from ‘74 to ’86.
Were you involved with the Carver Center?
[Growing up], Carver Center was right down the street from our house, half a block. That’s when Richard Pryor was going there… doing plays, telling jokes. I was involved with Carver Center quite a bit. That was my second home. I was a really good ping-pong player… C.T. Vivian [Rev. C.T. Vivian, civil rights activist and youth director at the Carver Center, later a lieutenant to Dr. King]… he was very good. I used to play him all the time.
Did you ever attend any of the shows when Richard Pryor did his act there?
After I moved to California… I started reading about Richard doing well. One day, he was in San Francisco at one of the clubs up on Broadway, so I went. Of course, he knew me, told everybody I was a [hometown] boy. I knew him very well and we were good friends. Richard was really quiet and shy—until he got on stage. Every time he came to San Francisco, I would go see him perform.
So in 1972, you ran for Peoria County Board…
I ran for County Board in ’72 and won. Mary Harkrader and Larry Johnson, we all won that year. I won as a Republican. In ’76, I didn’t run again. Then I switched parties and became a Democrat, and I lost in ’78. I ran for County Board again in ’82, and won. Then two years later, I ran for Peoria City Council and won; and I gave up the County Board seat.
During that time, weren’t there significant issues with equal employment opportunities in the region?
Yes. In the late ‘70s, I was arrested and went to jail… with a bunch of African Americans, some college students from Bradley, community people. In the ‘70s, there was a lot of turmoil around here.
What did you go to jail for?
Protesting the school district about making jobs for African Americans and that type of thing. That was in the late ‘70s. I remember when I got elected, the speech I made was that I believed in being inside [rather than] outside by getting elected. Making positive change from the inside, that type of thing. That was always one of my campaign slogans.
So you had a unifying message?
You were the first African American elected to the Peoria City Council. [Dr. James Stafford served on the Council in the late ‘50s, but was appointed.] Was that a significant accomplishment at the time?
Oh yes, that was big. It was important. And when I got back on the County Board, I was the only black on the County Board. I’ve been a lot of firsts (laughs). I started on the City Council in 1985 and served two terms. Then I got beat by Andre Bohannon in 1993. He was working for the city, and he retired. And during that time, there was a big problem with the Morning Star Baptist Church, and I was a member of Morning Star. That was real controversial within the black community. They split and I took the wrong side… I tried to do the right thing, but… because of that, some people turned against me politically.
So when you left the Council, what did you do? Were you still working at Cat?
I left Caterpillar in ‘86 and then started my own business, Balance Stone Strategies Group. I did consulting for diversity and that type of thing.
Tell us about the United Family Network.
We tried to bring families together for education and… parents’ training. Some of the things they’re doing now, we were trying to do back then. I was a founder. It was a social-service nonprofit. We never did have a 501(c)(3) [tax-exempt status], but we were involved with tutoring and mentoring kids… We worked with the churches because that was the backbone of the black community as far as power and influence. This was in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. A lot of what I was involved with was similar; it was overlapping. Wherever there was an opportunity… I would start an organization to fill that gap and get people involved. That was my mantra.
How did you get involved with Illinois Central College?
In 1997, I was appointed to the ICC Board of Trustees. Then I ran in 1999 and won, and I’ve been there ever since. I was just chair—I’ve been chair four different times.
What are some of the other organizations you’ve been involved with?
Over the past 50 years, I’ve been involved in numerous organizations, and my goal has always been to be an advocate for all people. I’m still working to help others understand that all are entitled to equal rights and equal protection. A few of my latest endeavors have been getting involved with CityLink… I’ve been there seven or eight years working with the ADA committee. The ACCTA—American Community College Trustee Association—I was elected to the national board and I was chairman of the national Diversity Committee. I was on the Civic Center Authority. I was elected Democratic State Central Committeeman three times in the 18th Congressional District. I was involved with the [Peoria] Housing Authority… And the Boys & Girls Club, I served on that board.
Looking back on your accomplishments, what are you most proud of?
One was in 1992 when Carol Moseley-Braun ran for Senator… I was downstate chair of her campaign. Downstate [meant] “outside of Chicago” (laughs)… I was elected to two National Democratic Conventions: 1984 and 2000. I was a lobbyist and consultant for the City of Chicago when Harold Washington was mayor. I brought him here—he was the first Chicago mayor to come here in 46 years… He and Mayor Maloof got to be pretty close. I’ve worked diligently to help people understand that diversity means including all ages, races, economic backgrounds and physical abilities. I hope that I’ve done that.
Does your family still live around here?
I have two daughters who live in Chicago, and one daughter, Jonelle, who is director for the Proctor Center with the Park District. She went to the University of Illinois. My oldest daughter graduated from the University of Tennessee. Kevin didn’t finish college, but he went three years and would have finished if he hadn’t died. Karen lives in New Orleans; she was the facility manager for Tulane University for almost 20 years… She finished at the University of Tennessee. And Rebecca graduated from Loyola University in Chicago. And then Anika is Patti’s child, and she graduated from the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle Campus—she got her master’s from there. Patti’s son, Joshua, attended Parkland Community College and then transferred to University of Illinois-Champaign. He’s married and working in Champaign School District as a teachers’ assistant and coach of the boys basketball and track teams at Jefferson Middle School. They all have degrees. I used to tell them all the time, “You can’t get married until you get an extra degree.” So they all did! (laughs)
Your brother Sam, is he still in Peoria?
Yes, he just turned 80. He worked a lot of years for the city. My father lived to be 96, and my mom was 95. They both lived to be quite old. They stayed in Peoria.
Have you thought about the legacy you want to leave?
One thing is, my children. Your legacy isn’t important if you haven’t raised your children well. A lot of people said, with the many things I’ve done, I should write a book or something like that. I have thought about it, and when I started putting stuff down, I said, “Damn there’s a lot of stuff!” Because of my mom, she was always involved: PTA, school and stuff like that. She was always free in the daytime because she worked at night from five to 11. And we had our chores and things we had to do. She was able to do things in the daytime… so she was involved in things in the community, especially anything to do with us kids. My biggest hope is that I made my mother proud. iBi