Illustration from the Daily American newspaper, published in Nashville on December 31, 1886
Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, U.S.
December 30, 1886 (aged 79–80)|
Washington, D.C., U.S.
|Resting place||Nashville City Cemetery|
|Occupation||Slave, political activist|
|Spouse(s)||3, including Mary Polk|
Elias Polk (1806 – December 30, 1886) was an American slave and conservative political activist who lived and worked in the White House in 1845, and again from 1847 to 1849. He was President James K. Polk's slave until Polk's death in 1849. He continued to live at Polk Place in Nashville, Tennessee with First Lady Sarah Childress Polk past Emancipation. He was a Democratic activist and served as the president of the Independent Colored Conservative National Club. He worked as a laborer on the United States Capitol from 1876 to 1882, and he died three days after meeting President Grover Cleveland.
Polk was given to James K. Polk by his father as a gift on his wedding to Sarah Childress in 1824, and he worked as a "body servant" and "coachman" in Columbia, Tennessee. After Polk was elected as the President of the United States in 1845, Polk and his other slaves joined him in the White House, where he lived and worked. However, he was sent to work for James H. Thomas from 1846 to 1847. He worked in the White House again from 1847 until the end of President Polk's term in 1849. He subsequently returned to Tennessee with the Polk family.
After the abolition of slavery in the US, he continued to live with the former first lady Sarah Childress Polk at Polk Place in Nashville, Tennessee, and he "threw in his political lot with displaced slave owners". He became a Democratic political activist, and he was elected as the president of the Independent Colored Conservative National Club in 1867. At a meeting whose speakers included Arthur St. Clair Colyar and Henry S. Foote in June 1867, Polk called for harmony between blacks and whites, and he suggested the tax on cotton production hurt African Americans.
Polk worked as a porter, or custodian, at the Tennessee Senate in Nashville from 1871 to 1876, and as a laborer on the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. from 1876 to 1882. Polk traveled back to Washington, D.C. and met President Grover Cleveland three days before his death.
Polk was married three times. His third wife was Mary Polk. Polk died on December 30, 1886 in Washington, D.C.. His funeral was held at Clark's Chapel, later known as Clark Memorial United Methodist Church. He was buried in the Nashville City Cemetery.
According to Zacharie Kinslow of the James K. Polk Ancestral Home, "During his life, Elias Polk went from being a president’s slave to one of the most controversial African-American political activists of his day." For journalist Jesse J. Holland, the author of The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African-American slaves in the White House, "In today's parlance, we'd call (Polk) an 'Uncle Tom' because he's taking the gentry's side. But that's how he felt."
- Kinslow, Zacharie W. "Enslaved and Entrenched: The Complex Life of Elias Polk". White House Historical Association. Retrieved June 1, 2018.
- Humbles, Andy (March 5, 2017). "New City Cemetery tombstones recognize James K. Polk slaves". The Tennessean. p. A4. Retrieved June 1, 2018 – via Newspapers.com. (Registration required (. ))
- "President Polk's Servant". Lebanon Daily News. Lebanon, Pennsylvania. December 31, 1886. p. 1. Retrieved June 1, 2018 – via Newspapers.com. (Registration required (. ))
- Scruggs, Afi (February 16, 2016). "'Invisibles' delves into lives of slaves". Arizona Republic. pp. 10; 12. Retrieved June 1, 2018 – via Newspapers.com. (Registration required (. ))
- "President Polk's Body-Servant". The Baltimore Sun. December 16, 1886. p. 1. Retrieved June 1, 2018 – via Newspapers.com. (Registration required (. ))
- "Grand Rally of the Conservatives Last Night. Plain Truths in Plain Language—Telling Speeches by Colored Orators—Why the Black Race Was Freed, and why Enfrachised". The Home Journal. Winchester, Tennessee. June 27, 1867. p. 4. Retrieved June 1, 2018 – via Newspapers.com. (Registration required (. ))
- "Meeting of the Colored Conservative Club". Nashville Union and American. June 8, 1867. p. 3. Retrieved June 1, 2018 – via Newspapers.com. (Registration required (. ))
- "People of Prominence". The Marion Star. Marion, Ohio. December 27, 1886. p. 3. Retrieved June 1, 2018 – via Newspapers.com. (Registration required (. ))