When local civil rights leader Robert Gilbert earned his bachelor’s degree in 1967, he became known as the first African American student to graduate from Baylor University. When Barbara Walker crossed the stage a few moments later, she received no such title, though Walker was second to Gilbert only in the alphabet.
Soon life-size statues of both Walker and Gilbert will be added in front of Baylor’s Tidwell Bible Building, casting their place in the university’s history in bronze.
Baylor is accepting proposals from artists interested in creating the bronzes.
The idea came from the university’s Commission on Historic Campus Representations, a body that spent six months evaluating statues, memorials and displays throughout the campus and coming up with ways to better represent Baylor’s full racial history.
Walker and Gilbert started life 370 miles away from each other, but the two had some things in common. Both grew up in religious households with parents who saw education as the only way for their children to succeed in a dangerously racist, segregated society. Before transferring into the newly desegregated Baylor University in 1965, both attended Paul Quinn College, a historically Black institution that moved from Waco to Dallas in 1990.
After graduation, Walker’s path took her across the country, exposing her to inequalities in health care from Maryland to California before she retired in 2001 and moved to Arizona, where she now lives. Gilbert spent his life in Waco as a teacher, minister and civil rights advocate who was instrumental in the fight to integrate Waco’s public schools He died in 1992 at age 50.
Former Waco City Council Member LaRue Dorsey, Gilbert’s older sister, said if her modest brother had lived to see the statues, he would have probably made a joke to deflect attention away from himself. But she wants people to see his statue and remember him as a humanitarian who cared about others first and foremost.
“There is a song that says ‘only what you do for Christ will last,’ and that’s what I think his life was,” Dorsey said. “He gave his all for people.”
Walker was born in the Black community of Redbird, Oklahoma, in 1947, the youngest of 13 children. Her mother had excelled in school and planned to attend college, but Walker’s grandfather spent her savings before she got the chance.
“She didn’t have a dime to go to school, so she gave up that idea and ended up getting married and having lots of children,” Walker said. “But she always stressed how important getting an education was.”
Walker took her mother’s words to heart. She grew up working in the cotton fields around Redbird, like most residents, and from a young age she decided she would do something else for a living.
She said she loved her school teachers in Redbird and was able to skip ahead a year at the elementary-school level. Relatives there told her about Paul Quinn College in Waco, and as a teenager, she started saving money she made chopping cotton to put toward tuition.
Gilbert, meanwhile, was born in 1941. Like Walker, he dreamed from a young age of taking a different path than his parents. His father was a minister, but Gilbert had learned about famous Black lawmakers in school and decided he would like to follow their footsteps to Congress, he said during a Baylor Institute for Oral History interview.
The Gilbert family’s home in South Waco was close to Baylor. Dorsey remembers having to walk around the campus instead of through it to get to their high school on University Parks Drive to avoid having rocks hurled at them.
“In those days you couldn’t even try on clothes downtown, you had to hold it up,” Dorsey said, pretending to hold a hanger to her collarbone to demonstrate. “You couldn’t try on shoes, you couldn’t ride the bus unless you sat on the backseat and if the bus was crowded you had to stand up. We were used to this.”
In 1960, Gilbert graduated from A.J. Moore High School and headed to Paul Quinn College. He married young, but the marriage was short-lived. A pain in his hip he had ignored for years started to intensify. He eventually was diagnosed with multiple forms of arthritis, and the pain of the condition over time left his body “twisted” in his sister’s words. He spent years traveling to hospitals offering potential treatments, but none proved successful, and he eventually started using a wheelchair to help him get around.
Arriving at Baylor
Baylor’s student body had voted to integrate the university multiple times before the Board of Regents made it official policy in 1964.
Walker had stuck it out for a year at Paul Quinn but was not finding a good fit. She was ahead of her classmates academically and also lived off-campus, limiting her ability to participate in activities with other students and leaving her feeling isolated and lonely.
Robert Sunderland, a history professor and freshman sponsor, pulled her aside and told her Baylor would mostly likely integrate next year. He spent months preparing her for the transition, and told her to be ready to apply the moment registration opened.
“I feel like I was really blessed to have him as my professor, because he recognized very quickly that I did not fit in there,” Walker said.
When she enrolled, the university initially assigned her a single dorm, but she wrote back and said she had no interest in living alone. Officials asked female students if anyone was interested in rooming with her, and another Barbara, a white student from Alabama, volunteered. The pair took a room in Memorial Hall, where Walker lived for all three years, and she said she found it relatively easy to make friends. Outside of her friend group, students seemed to mostly avoid her.
“While I was there, I never had anyone say anything rude or racist to me. I was basically ignored,” Walker said. “I think that’s how the students handled it. They just acted like I wasn’t really there.
“And it’s really interesting how Baylor handled that. Baylor has always said that Robert was the first African American to graduate from Baylor, and that’s not true. There were two graduates from day one. But like I was saying, I was totally ignored as if I had not even been there.”
When Gilbert transferred into Baylor in 1965, he was hardly invisible.
Dorsey said Gilbert did not consider himself particularly radical, but he was uncompromising. He wanted equality across the board and advocated for integrating public schools, which Waco still had not done. He received written threats for speaking out. After someone tried to burn his house down in 1965, he and other family members moved in with Dorsey temporarily.
“People at that time, just like now, hated,” Dorsey said. “There’s hatred all over the world. You can’t help people hating you, but your thing is to not hate them.”
One semester, someone put a snake in Gilbert’s car. After that incident, a classmate on the football team appointed himself Gilbert’s bodyguard and drove him to and from campus each day for the rest of the semester. Later in life, other friends would serving as bodyguards when his civil rights work continued.
He and his sister talked daily about the danger of what he was doing, and his mother was terrified someone would target him specifically because of his disability.
“We talked about it all the time, but we had to let him do what he had to do because that was his calling,” Dorsey said.
After graduation, Gilbert took a teaching job at the all-white Tennyson Junior High School and began preaching. After a few years, he decided to focus on ministry. He also served as assistant director of Upward Bound, a McLennan Community College program to help Black students prepare for college that remains in operation.
In 1970, Gilbert became the first African-American to enroll in a master’s course at Baylor when he returned to pursue biblical studies, but his health worsened the following year and he returned to preaching exclusively. He started at his home church, Antioch Baptist Church in South Waco, preached at several area churches and ministered to people in addiction recovery at the now-closed Freeman Center, where Dorsey also worked for 20 years.
“Robert died in November 1992, and I asked the (Freeman) pastor if I could finish out that month,” Dorsey said. “They assigned it to me, and I did it for 17 years until they closed.”
In an oral history interview, he recalled serving on an advisory commission intended to advise the Waco City Council on racial issues. He was initially glad to join but after a year became frustrated by the lack of action.
“I found that seemingly I was out there by myself, and I stopped talking, and this is what I’m talking about,” he said. “They can take the fight out of you when you feel like you’re just kind of out there talking by yourself.”
After a meeting when he asked the commission to take any step toward planning to desegregate Waco public schools, one of the white members told him that to her, he sounded as though he “hated” white people.
“It was her view that because I took the stands that I did that I was biased and so forth, that I hated all white people,” he said. “But it was not that way at all.”
When the NAACP filed a suit against Waco ISD for still not integrating, Gilbert served as the plaintiff.
Dorsey said her brother was in pain during the 30 years he spent actively advocating for racial equality, but she only heard him complain once. It was the last week of his life, and he was 50 years old.
“He had heart surgery, eye surgery, all kinds of surgery, but he would always snap back,” Dorsey said. “Until the last week of his life, when he told me he was just tired. So I said ‘OK,’ and I went out to the car and screamed until I was tired, and then it dawned on me: He’s the one that’s sick, and I had to let him go.”
His funeral was held in Waco Hall on the Baylor campus, another first for an African American alumnus. Former students from Tennyson, friends, colleagues people he had ministered to, mentored and advocated for throughout the community filled the large hall to say goodbye.
Meanwhile, Dr. Osborne, Walker’s sociology professor at Baylor, took her under his wing and encouraged her to apply for graduate school. He helped her find a university to attend and apply for scholarships, and soon after graduation Walker left for Florida State University. She was not invisible there the way she had felt at Baylor.
“From the teachers on down, there was so much racism,” Walker said.
Walker swore to never step foot in Florida again, and never has. The university never told her and the other African American student in her program that on-campus graduate housing was available. In the end, they lived in nearby student housing at Florida A&M, a historically Black university.
Later, she landed an apartment with a white school friend, Deda, in Jacksonville, which lasted just hours after the landlord saw her.
Deda found an apartment and moved in first, and Walker followed the next day.
“You should have seen the look on (the landlady’s) face,” Walker said. “She asked me ‘what race are you’ and I said ‘I’m an American Negro.’”
Through a chance connection with friend’s family member, she happened to find a room to rent.
“Otherwise, I don’t know what I would have done,” Walker said. “Deda would have had no problem. She was white. She got to go where she wanted to go.”
In her undergraduate classes, Walker had learned just how little the general public understood about mental illness and the stark differences in the quality of care from city to city.
“Part of it was just being aware of how poorly people who had mental problems were treated,” Walker said. “There seemed to be a lack of understanding between the community and what people were receiving.”
When she neared graduation, the California State Department of Mental Health recruited Walker and several of her classmates to come to work right after graduation in March 1969 in anticipation of the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, which would go into effect in June of that year.
The law changed protocols for people who had been committed to mental health institutions, and many of them would need housing, support services and outpatient therapy. People with mental illnesses who had been institutionalized for years suddenly needed support for their transition to the outside world, and California needed social workers.
“So many of them had just been abandoned, had been brought to the mental hospitals when they were young and had just been left there,” Walker said. “Nobody had even bothered to visit or have anything to do with them.”
Walker said with proper medication and support, most of her patients acclimated, and none ever returned. Over the years she worked in inpatient and outpatient positions with elderly people, mentally ill people and poor families in Norwalk, South Gate, Los Angeles, Hollywood and then back to the inpatient hospital in Norwalk.
She said she was struck by the disparity in the quality of service people received depending on where they lived.
She helped establish a mental health clinic in Inglewood dedicated to teaching parenting courses for people whose children had been removed by Child Protective Services. Many of the parents she worked with were in addiction recovery programs as well, and most if not all of the families were Black.
“Black people were still treated very differently in public mental health, I thought, than white,” Walker said. “I was giving them information white families were paying a lot of money for.”
With each parent, she started with lessons about how to maintain self-esteem and a sense of self-worth.
“If they wouldn’t feel good about themselves, there was just no way they could adequately parent,” Walker said. “Help them to grow first, then they’ll be able to translate that in how they relate to their children.”
Walker retired 17 year ago and now lives in Arizona. In 2017, she returned to Baylor University to speak to students about the path she navigated as a student and the career that education paved the way for.
“It was the foundation of my education, preparing me for my life,” Walker said. “I am so thankful for so many people who stepped forward to help me, and I will always be grateful for that.”