Prentice Herman Polk (1898-1984) was fascinated with photography from as early as he could remember. He began studying through a correspondence course which he paid for with $10 he was mistakenly given as change for a candy bar at a local store. Before he was in his teens he had begun taking photographs of the everyday lives of former slaves and sharecroppers--the kinds of subjects which would occupy his work for the rest of his long and storied career.
In 1916, he had the opportunity to attend the famed Tuskegee Institute. Although the school was technically chartered by the Alabama state legislature to repay black voters for their support, its early history is almost synonymous with the name of its founder and first administrator, African American leader Booker T. Washington. Tuskegee's roots were in the post-Reconstruction era in the South, when higher educational opportunities for African Americans were still severely limited.
Washington's most significant contribution was his strong belief in industrial education and training as the key to success for African Americans. Students were required to learn a trade and perform manual labor at the school, including making and laying the bricks for the buildings that became the first campus. Tuskegee's charter had mandated that tuition would be free for students who committed to teaching in Alabama public schools. The students' labor helped with financial costs, and Washington solicited much of the remaining funding from northern white philanthropists.
Tuskegee was incorporated as a private institution in 1892. Because social conventions would have prohibited white instructors from serving under a black principal, Tuskegee became the first black institution of higher learning with a black faculty. In 1896 the school hired a young teacher who would become famous, George Washington Carver, whose groundbreaking agricultural research received international recognition. Washington also became nationally accepted as a social and cultural leader during the 1890s, because many whites appreciated his gracious and gradualist approach to race relations--as a result Tuskegee gained wide recognition and substantial funding.
Changes to the original industrial training approach came gradually after Washington's death in 1915. Tuskegee was able to award its first baccalaureate degree in 1925, and began its first full collegiate curriculum in 1927, with departments for business and teachers' and nurses' training.
When Polk completed his course of study on this day in 1920, he was appointed to the faculty of the photography department--which he and several other pioneers literally built from scratch. He then served as department chair from 1933-1938. From 1933-1982 he was the official school photographer, taking pictures of members of the Tuskegee community as well as visitors such as Henry Ford and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Perhaps his greatest contribution to history though was the fact that he also chronicled the experiences of George Washington Carver--his experiments, his discoveries, his innovations, and his triumphs. By the time Polk retired in 1982, he had documented virtually the entire history of the Tuskegee Institute community in the twentieth century--a history that helped to shape the very destiny of the civil rights movement, African American opportunity, and the very character of the American experience.