A Black man in an academic robe gestures over a podium toward an audience wearing black robes and graduation caps. Behind him are five people, also in academic robes.
Rev. Dr. Robert L. Polk shares his sermon, “That They May All Be One,” to audiences gathered around the newly named Robert L. Polk Open Air Theatre, during a naming ceremony and baccalaureate held on Friday, May 17.

On Friday, May 17, Doane University held its annual baccalaureate service in the new Robert L. Polk Outdoor Theatre, which included an official naming ceremony for the theatre. The name of the theatre was first announced following the 2024 Robert L. Polk Lecture, held Tuesday, April 9. 

The naming recognizes and honors Rev. Dr. Robert L. Polk, who graduated from Doane in 1952 as the university’s first Black graduate. Polk returned to Crete at 96 years old to give the baccalaureate service and to present the commencement speech during the afternoon graduation ceremony on Saturday, May 18.  

Two men in black academic robes shake hands in front of a poster showing a building. Behind them flies an American flag, with green plant growth in the background split by a brick retaining wall.
Rev. Dr. Robert L. Polk, a 1952 graduate of Doane University, shakes hands with Doane President Dr. Roger Hughes after they revealed a rendering of the Robert L. Polk Open Air Theatre. The naming of the theatre was celebrated during Doane’s baccalaureate ceremony, held in the theatre between the university’s C. Donald Brodie Hall and the Chab Weyers Education & Hixson Lied Art Building. 

“Dr. Robert Polk has been a proponent of change at Doane since he first stepped on campus. Naming the outdoor theatre in honor of him is one special way to recognize his leadership and a life-time of championing civil and human rights,” said Luis Sotelo, vice president for the division of diversity, equity and inclusion.  

Throughout Polk’s life, his ministry has been focused on building bridges, as seen in the title of his sermon, “That They May All Be One.” 

"It was a natural fit to name the outdoor theater to honor Dr. Polk. He has been an advocate for people to have a voice his entire life, and this space will open up opportunities for students to share their voices for years to come,” said Brian Stutz, director of residential life and education. “Just as Polk has been building bridges between communities throughout his life, our students will have this space to engage with peers from all different backgrounds and build the connections that are a hallmark of our Doane student and alumni experience.” 

Polk was the youngest of six children born to Tillman and Lillie Polk in 1928. His parents came to Chicago during the Great Migration, seeking better opportunities for their lives and avoiding the harsh Jim Crow South. His parents met, married and reared their family on Chicago’s South Side in the West Woodlawn community, where all of their children attended the same elementary and high schools. 

The day following his graduation from high school, he and all of his male classmates were to be inducted into the U.S. Army, but the war ended before graduation. He attended junior college for two years. Polk worked for a year to earn enough money to continue his education and applied to Doane College for admission. Georgetta Weaver, who was in his Congregational Church youth group, also applied to Doane. Their applications were rejected by the school, indicating that no white student wanted to room with a Black student. 

A group of men gather together for a photo. One of them is sitting, one kneeling, while the others stand behind.
Rev. Dr. Robert L. Polk chats and poses for photos with members of all ages in Doane University’s Delta Kappa Pi fraternity, affectionately known as the “Dekes.” Polk, Doane’s first Black graduate in 1952, was active in the fraternity during his years on campus.

Polk took the case to Congregational Church authorities who made it possible for Polk and Weaver to enter Doane in the fall of 1949 — both with white roommates. He completed his education in 1952, with Weaver (known before her death in January 2022 as Georgetta W. Cooper) graduating in 1953. 

“It is important to remember that this is Dr. Polk’s life, and that his milestone as the first Black Doane graduate is living history. Our students are living in a world that is more diverse than ever, but the work of advocating for equity, race and social justice is ongoing,” said Dr. Marilyn Johnson-Farr, Dwight E. Porter Professor of Education and committee chair for the Polk Lecture.

Speakers during the event included Doane President Dr. Roger Hughes and Sotelo. Students Gabrielle Porter-Loving, Blair Souchek and Sabrina Renderos Bonilla provided reflections, with Souchek leading the call to celebration and Porter-Loving reading Matthew 5:1-11 from the Bible. Porter-Loving is a 2021 graduate of Doane-Lincoln and will receive her Master of Business Administration this year. Both Souchek and Renderos Bonilla will receive their undergraduate degrees. 

Susan Goodrich, whose father was Polk’s roommate at Doane, gave the welcome address for the event and Johnson-Farr introduced Polk prior to his sermon. Dr. Karla Cooper shared the benediction, with music performed by the Doane Choir. 

Additional biographical information for Rev. Dr. Robert L. Polk

Polk received his Master of Divinity degree from Hartford Theological Seminary and began his ministry in a rural, all-white parish in North Dakota. He was informed that he was the 48th Black person in the state. He helped build bridges between the community and the newly built Air Force base in Minot. Polk received his first honorary Doctor of Divinity from Doane College.

Following his five years in North Dakota, Polk moved to New York City where his work in race and social justice in church and community continued. He became the first Black clergyman to serve at the Riverside Church. He continued his ministry, which was ecumenical and diverse, and included child welfare and directing the New York City Council of Churches. He served on a multitude of boards and committees, including as a trustee of City University of New York (CUNY), racial justice and civil rights groups. 

Polk has published three books: Crossing Barriers & Building BridgesTight Little Island, and Fly in the Buttermilk. He continues to live in a retirement community in Philadelphia.