Thursday, April 25, 2024

Baylor University dedicates statues of first Black graduates on historic day

Before a celebratory crowd in front of the iconic Tidwell Bible Building, Baylor University today unveiled and dedicated statues honoring the University’s first Black graduates, the late Rev. Robert L. Gilbert, B.A. ’67, and Barbara A. Walker, B.A. ’67.

Created by renowned sculptor Benjamin Victor, the more than 7-foot-tall bronze statues were installed on each side of the walkway leading into Tidwell, where – as students – Gilbert and Walker took their academic major classes in history and sociology, respectively. On June 2, 1967, the pair became the first Black students to earn undergraduate degrees from Baylor, receiving their diplomas in alphabetical order during the same commencement ceremony. They both left Baylor and went on to live as servant leaders in their communities.

Standing atop limestone bases, each inscribed with an inspiring message from Gilbert and Walker, the statues were simultaneously unveiled to a cascade of cheers – as well as some tears – for a long-awaited, historic recognition on the Baylor campus.

“Baylor University is to be commended today for this recognition of two sainted, pioneering African American bearers of human dignity and intelligence,” said Kenyatta Gilbert, B.A. ’96, Ph.D., professor of homiletics at Howard University and son of Rev. Robert and Elwayne Gilbert, who spoke on behalf of his family at the dedication.

 

(Courtesy photo)

“In memorializing my father, Rev. Robert Gilbert, and the living legend Mrs. Barbara Walker, the University has said, by way of this act, that it chooses to be a university that remembers history rightly, to be forward-thinking and to be scrupulous in seeking out tangible ways to reimagine responsibility for the future. That it intends to live into a grander moral vision that would make her worthy of bearing the imprimatur Christian university.”

In her remarks after the unveiling, Walker dedicated her statue to the memory of her mother, who graduated top of her class and always dreamed of going to college. Born in 1908, she loved education, but there were few opportunities for her to attend school.
“If it weren’t for her, I would have never had the opportunity to go to Baylor,” Walker said. “I always felt an obligation that I need to make my mother’s dream come true and get an education. From the time I was a little girl, it was always in my heart that I was going to college. Baylor opened up a way for me to graduate in 1967, and I feel like we both graduated from Baylor.”

A direct outgrowth of the work of the University’s Commission on Historic Campus Representations, the statues celebrate the strength, courage and accomplishments of Gilbert and Walker. In 2020, the Commission researched the record of the University and its early leaders relative to slavery and the Confederacy while evaluating and offering guidance regarding all statues, monuments, buildings and other aspects of the campus within this context. In March 2021, the Commission publicly released its final report, which included a recommendation to establish representations that better communicate the contributions of Black students, faculty and staff.

“Today, the landscape of Baylor University’s campus is changing,” said Baylor President Linda A. Livingstone, Ph.D. “Rev. Gilbert and Mrs. Walker were two young people who endured racism, threats and injustice before, during and after their time at Baylor. I am so thankful they did not give up or surrender to hate. Through their perseverance in the face of tremendous adversity and injustice, they paved the way for Baylor to grow into a multicultural, welcoming place for thousands of new students each and every year.”

More than 100 family members and friends of Gilbert and Walker attended the ceremony, along with Baylor administrators, faculty, staff and students, as well as members of the University’s Board of Regents. Special guests included students in the inaugural cohort of Baylor’s Trailblazer Scholars Program, which was named after Gilbert and Walker. This scholarship program is designed to recognize the importance of fostering diversity and mutual respect at Baylor.

The ceremony included remarks from Waco Mayor Pro Tem Josh Borderud, B.A. ’01, M.A. ’03, J.D. ’03, who declared April 4, 2023, Rev. Robert Gilbert and Barbara Walker Day in Waco. Baylor Regent Michael Heiskell, B.A. ’72, J.D. ’74, the first Black graduate of Baylor Law School, closed the ceremony with a prayer of dedication.

The Gilbert and Walker statues were sculpted by Victor, who is celebrated for telling the stories of individuals from historically underrepresented groups, and he is the only living artist with three pieces in the National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol.

Victor sculpted the Gilbert and Walker statues in clay, then used a rubber-type mold to create 1.5-times life-size bronze casts at a foundry. Each statue has a special patina finish developed by Victor. The two pieces were conceptualized and created in his Idaho studio, and he personally drove them to Waco for permanent placement outside Tidwell Bible Building.

“I spent my heart and my life getting to know Mrs. Walker, getting to know Kenyatta Gilbert and the Gilbert family, and wanting, in this whole process, to do justice to the amazing legacies of these two individuals,” Victor said. “Every bit of the spirit that comes through in the artwork is thanks to the families and thanks to Mrs. Walker. I’m very humbled as an artist and as a sculptor to get to do this, and I’m very thankful to all of you for accepting me into your families and allowing me to represent your loved ones.”

An influential educator, pastor and civil rights leader in the Waco area, Gilbert came to Baylor as a transfer student from Paul Quinn College. He earned his B.A. in history, and three years later, he became the first Black student to enroll in Baylor’s graduate program in religion. Eventually going into ministry and despite severe health challenges, Gilbert pastored local churches, was the first Black Wacoan elected to the Waco ISD Board, and in 1992, was honored as Humanitarian of the Year by the Waco Conference of Christians and Jews. He died in 1992 at age 50. In 2020, Baylor’s department of religion established the Robert L. Gilbert Scholar in Religion Graduate Stipend.

Walker also transferred to Baylor from Paul Quinn, excelling academically from an early age and finding her fit at Baylor in the field of social work. She earned her B.A. in sociology from Baylor then went on to establish a career that integrated her service to the Lord with her work in the community. She spent 32 years playing a pivotal role in the State of California’s Department of Mental Health, helping patients find the right help and receive assistance to transition back into jobs and the community. Like Gilbert, she saw her life’s work as a calling and ministry. She retired in 2001, but has remained connected to Baylor, often returning to speak to students. In 2017, Walker received Baylor’s Medal of Service for Contributions to the Professional, Christian Ministry.

“In 1845, the Baylor foundation was laid, literally and figuratively, by people who never had an opportunity to attend the University,” said Board of Regents Chair Mark Rountree, B.B.A. ’86, M.T.A. ’87. “Today we celebrate Rev. Robert Gilbert and Mrs. Barbara Walker for having the courage to do something that had never been done before. They are pioneers – true trailblazers – deserving of our deep gratitude and sincere admiration.”

In addition to the Gilbert and Walker statues, Baylor is in the early stages of reconceptualizing the area of campus around the Judge Baylor Statue; creating a “Memorial to the Enslaved” on Founders Mall; and incorporating contributions by Indigenous and other groups along Speight Avenue, among other actions as the University works to address historical aspects of the Baylor story and celebrate the value of all members of the Baylor Family in fulfillment of the institution’s Christian mission.

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