Adorned with cow skull sculptures, Polk Hall stands along Broughton Drive on North Carolina State University’s North Campus. From 1926 until 1946, it housed the Departments of Animal Industry, Horticulture, and Landscape Gardening; as of 2020, the Departments of Animal Science and Biochemistry resided there.
Architect Hobart Upjohn designed Polk Hall specifically for animal husbandry. In 1929, Professor Alvin Fountain told the NC State Alumni News that the wings of the building featured an arena-like “judging room” for livestock; a “slaughter laboratory” with a circling track upon which students performed skinning and butchering; a tannery; a sausage-grinding laboratory; a smokehouse; and dairy facilities. He also said it boasted “the most complete” horticulture lab in the South.
Because of its advanced equipment, Polk Hall served many populations. According to the Technician, students operated an Agricultural Fair there until 1927, and the State College Grange hosted a dance in 1936. The Food Science Club met in Polk Hall in the 1960s, and the Animal Science Club followed in the 1980s. According to Extension Agency reports, 4-H youth and teachers saw animal husbandry demonstrations there throughout the 1940s. When the school celebrated a three-story building addition in 1963, former administrator Dean Colvard noted that researchers had used Polk Hall to standardize cattle breeding, evaluate over 50,000 cows, innovate the Polled Dorset sheep breed, refine dairy pasteurization, and investigate cottonseed poisoning.
The university named the building after Leonidas Lafayette Polk immediately after completing construction in 1926. At the dedication, NC State Trustee, editor, and ardent segregationist Clarence Poe said the school chose the name because Polk sowed “all over North Carolina the seed that later ripened into an irresistible demand for a state agricultural college.”
According to biographer Stuart Noblin, Polk was born in Anson County, North Carolina on April 24, 1837. His parents died before he reached 15, leaving Polk 353 acres and seven enslaved people. At 23, Polk won a seat in the North Carolina House of Commons—the same year Abraham Lincoln became President and southern states seceded from the Union. Polk hesitated to support secession, but ultimately helped organize rebelling militias. He became a colonel in the Confederate Army and then returned to legislating in 1864. Although Polk prepared his state for reentering the Union when the Civil War ended, he opposed emancipation and Constitutional amendments protecting the rights of formerly enslaved people. He called both “the greatest crime of modern times” in The Ansonian newspaper.
For the next decade, North Carolina’s financial and agricultural sectors struggled. Polk outlined a recovery plan in 1876 columns for The Ansonian. Planters, he said, should split “large and unwieldy tracts of land” and “dispose of them to white men.” Because he wanted his state to be “a home for the Northerner or European” immigrant, he encouraged newcomers along with innovative farming ventures as the state’s first Department of Agriculture Commissioner from 1877-1880. However, Polk did not want Black Carolinians to own farms. “Guided, directed and controlled by the intelligent white man, he has no equal in the world, as a field laborer,” Polk wrote. “But under the wild delusions with which emancipation staggers and beclouds his feeble mind, he assumes that with his freedom, came the foresight and capacity to manage farms.”
Polk resigned as Agriculture Commissioner in 1880 and started The Progressive Farmer newspaper in 1886, where he advocated for an agricultural college. He explained to readers how the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 allowed each state to spend profits from federal land sales on colleges devoted to agriculture and industry. Although the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had started accepting land grant funds in 1867, they refused to offer agricultural classes. Polk invoked farmers’ rights, arguing “someday perhaps the funds now used by the University, which belong to the farmers and mechanics of this State, may be set aside for their legitimate purpose, and then we may look [forward to] a college where our farmers’ and mechanics’ sons may be trained to the life-work before them.”
In January 1887, Polk and 300 farmers rallied for the college. Two months later, legislators transferred funds to a new North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts.
Next, Polk turned The Progressive Farmer into the “official organ” of the North Carolina Farmers’ Alliance. The nonpartisan Alliance lobbied state legislatures and Congress to protect landowning farmers against business merchants. They sought a “subtreasury plan” of federal warehouses to store nonperishables until markets were favorable; regulation of the railroad industry; and the abolition of the crop lien system, where merchants charged cashless farmers high credit rates. Legislators who sympathized with the Alliance won a majority in the General Assembly in 1890 and enacted railroad reforms.
Although women could join the Alliance, Polk barred Black members. “Negroes do not and cannot belong to the ‘Alliance concern,’” Polk declared in the 1888 article, “A [N-word] in the Wood Pile.” When the separate Colored Farmers’ Alliance asked its members to strike for higher pay in 1891, Polk instructed his readers to “leave their cotton in the fields rather than pay more than 50 cents per hundred to have it picked,” noting “the colored Alliance men attempt to better their condition at the expense of the white brethren.”
Polk’s stance did not deter followers. Frustrated with local Democrats’ inaction and the Alliance’s timidity, he left both to establish a North Carolina Populist Party in 1892. His cries for silver coinage and against national banks convinced Populists nationwide to nominate him for president. But Polk died of a bladder ailment before they could, on June 11, 1892. In his remarks at the building’s dedication, Poe quoted constituents who said Polk, “gave his life for oppressed humanity.”
Polk played a crucial role in founding of NC State University, but also as a white politician in late 19th century North Carolina, he was deeply implicated in white supremacy campaigns.
Original Source References
Current, Ruth. “Annual Report, Home Demonstration Work, 1941.” Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Agriculture Extension Service, 1941. In Cooperative Extension Service. Annual Reports (UA102.002), Special Collections Research Center at NC State University Libraries, Raleigh, NC. Accessed August 29, 2020. "NC State University Libraries’ Digital Collections: Rare and Unique Materials." https://d.lib.ncsu.edu/collections/catalog/1941fcs
L.L. Polk Papers, #3708 Folder 98-99, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill, NC. https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/03708
Polk Family Papers, MC 00013, NC State University Libraries Special Collections Research Center. North Carolina State University Libraries, Raleigh, NC. https://www.lib.ncsu.edu/findingaids/mc00013
Polk, Leonidas L. “A Great Mistake,” Progressive Farmer (Winston, N.C.), 15 Sept. 1891. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn92073049/1891-09-15/ed-1/seq-2/>
---. “A [N-word] in the Wood-pile,” Progressive Farmer (Winston, N.C.), 10 July 1888. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn92073049/1888-07-10/ed-1/seq-2/>
---.“A Successful Institution,” Progressive Farmer (Winston, N.C.), 16 June 1886. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn92073049/1886-06-16/ed-1/seq-4/>
---. “Labor and Immigration No. 2,” The Weekly Ansonian (Polkton, N.C.) 12 April, 1876. Newspapers.com. https://newscomnc.newspapers.com/image/61953291.
---. “Labor and Immigration No. 4,” The Weekly Ansonian (Polkton, N.C.) 26 April, 1876. Newspapers.com. https://newscomnc.newspapers.com/image/61953323
---. “Speech,” The Winfield Courier (Winfield, K.S.) 10 July 1890. Newspapers.com.
Stuart Mcguire Noblin Papers, MC 00051 Box 1, Folder 10, NC State University Libraries Special Collections Research Center. North Carolina State University Libraries, Raleigh, NC. https://www.lib.ncsu.edu/findingaids/mc00051/
Technician (Raleigh, N.C.) (LH1 .N6 T4), Special Collections Research Center at NC State University Libraries, Raleigh, NC. Accessed August 29, 2020. "NC State University Libraries’ Digital Collections: Rare and Unique Materials."
University Archives Reference Collection, Biographical Files, UA 050.003 Box 45, Folder “Polk, Leonidas L.”, NC State University Libraries Special Collections Research Center. North Carolina State University Libraries, Raleigh, NC. https://www.lib.ncsu.edu/findingaids/ua050_003
University Archives Reference Collection, University Buildings, Sites, Landmarks Files, UA 050.004 Box 7, Folder “Polk Hall,” NC State University Libraries Special Collections Research Center. North Carolina State University Libraries, Raleigh, NC. https://www.lib.ncsu.edu/findingaids/ua050_004/
Secondary Source References
Beeby, James M. Revolt of the Tar Heels: The North Carolina Populist Movement, 1890-1901. Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2008.
Berry, Hardy D., comp. Place Names on the Campus of North Carolina State University. Raleigh: North Carolina State University, 1995.
Noblin, Stuart. Leonidas La Fayette Polk, Agrarian Crusader. Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 1949.
Reagan, Alice Elizabeth. North Carolina State University, A Narrative History. Raleigh: North Carolina State University Foundation and North Carolina State University Alumni Association, 1987.
Steelman, Lala Carr. The North Carolina Farmers' Alliance: A Political History, 1887-1893. Greenville, N.C.: East Carolina University Publications, Dept. of History, 1985.
University Architect, Office of the. “050—Polk Hall History.” Raleigh, N.C.: North Carolina State University, 2020. Emailed to author, 27 August, 2020.