‘Resilience in the Face of Adversity’: The Life of Dr. Margaret E. M. Tolbert
Many ODU students document their lives on blogs and social media websites such as Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat. With the click of a button, they chronicle where they go, how they feel and what they ate, sharing this with their family, friends and fans alike. What happens though when one has amassed a history during the tumultuous ’40s and ’50s, when one has become an accomplished scholar? How then does one document their life?
The life of Dr. Margaret E. M. Tolbert is chronicled in her autobiography, “Resilience in the Face of Adversity: A Suffolkian’s Life Story.” Tolbert grew up with three sisters and two brothers in Suffolk, Virginia, a city that was segregated into whites and “coloreds,” a term which includes all non-white ethnicities. Tolbert describes the interactions between whites and coloreds as mostly non-antagonistic.
“There were white salesmen,” Tolbert says. “They sometimes gave [coloreds] food and unwanted clothing. Sometimes farmers picked colored people for field hands. Grocery stores near the neighborhood offered credit for coloreds as well as white people.”
While the interactions were often peaceful, coloreds such as Tolbert were always aware that they were at the bottom of the social totem pole.
As a child, Tolbert and her family went to the beach and the movie theaters, both with separate entrances and sections for whites and colored people. Downtown stores had separate fountains, each complete with white signs in big black letters. No one dared go to the wrong fountain.
“We held hands as a family as we walked,” Tolbert says. “We never did things alone. That was too dangerous.”
Tolbert and her siblings were orphaned at a young age. Her mother died when she was only three, and a few years later, her father passed. After living with her grandmother and cousins, Tolbert took her younger siblings and traveled to live with her oldest sister.
“Cell phones were non-existent and most people didn’t own telephones,” says Tolbert. “So we didn’t call before we got there. We just went.”
Tolbert received support from her community to continue her education. Generous locals and members of the church supported her financially. As the valedictorian of her high school class, Tolbert chose to study chemistry at the Tuskegee Institute. She thought she would move on to medical school two years later, but found that she enjoyed the laboratory work.
“My desire to be a doctor was because that was what I saw,” Tolbert says. “There were a number of colored doctors in Suffolk, and I admired their work. When I saw the careers that one could have, I decided to stay and seek my bachelors in chemistry.”
Tolbert found mentors on campus who provided excellent guidance, mentors who made it possible for off-campus internships.
With her combined skills and knowledge, Tolbert conducted research at a multitude of facilities, including Tuskegee, Brown University and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Canada. She also served on the faculty at the College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at Florida A&M University, where she eventually became Associate Dean.
Tolbert additionally completed several foreign tours of duty in Africa. In Libya, she was a part of a group that helped develop professional jobs for women. In Ghana, she helped with the National Cancer Program. There, Tolbert helped foster diversity in the National Science Foundation, so women, minorities and persons with disabilities were not overlooked in receiving awards for their hard work.
Now that she has written her autobiography, Tolbert offers her advice for young people, such as ODU students, in the documenting of their lives.
“Decide on the path you want to take and the route you’re going to take on that path. Find someone to give good advice. Decide what legacy you want to leave behind and make sure to show gratitude to those who’ve helped you along the way. Don’t make excuses. Just do it.”
“Resilience in the Face of Adversity: A Suffolkian’s Life Story” is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Balboa Press in hard copy or e-book format.