Robert Gilbert: Pastor, civil rights leader, and Baylor’s first African-American graduate
Pearl Beverly, longtime director of Baylor’s Department of Multicultural Affairs, likes to ask her students, “What three key things happened in 1963?” They usually can come up with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the assassination of John F. Kennedy — but often struggle to think of one more. The third, Beverly says, was that on Nov. 1, 1963, Baylor University’s Board voted to integrate the school.
One of the first to take advantage of the change was the late Rev. Robert Lewis Gilbert (BA ’67), who would become Baylor’s first African-American graduate. (Later in the day, he was joined by the first female African-American Baylor graduate, Barbara Walker, who followed Gilbert simply because of alphabetical order.) Of course, Gilbert wasn’t just “Baylor’s first Black graduate;” today, he is remembered for much, much more.
Gilbert initially came to Baylor as a transfer student from Paul Quinn College, looking to get his law degree in order to change the injustices around him. But in no way did Baylor’s integration instantly change how Black people were treated on campus. Many of his fellow students wouldn’t acknowledge him as he walked across campus. There were no clubs he felt comfortable joining. And Gilbert’s very first professor, according to Gilbert’s 1971 oral memoirs, told him he “didn’t talk like a n*****.”
After graduation, Gilbert spent three years as the first African-American teacher at a local middle school. Here, things were a little different. The African-American employees looked up to him as someone who had made it. The children, though influenced by their parents’ way of thinking, were developing a distaste for previous generations’ blatant prejudices. “Color seldom, if ever, came up in class in a derogatory way,” he said. “If race came up and we were discussing race, we just went into it the way it was, and I never did skirt any of these issues.”
It was around this time that Gilbert began to feel his path change. He had gone to Baylor thinking a law degree would be the way to change the injustices around him — but he began to understand the impact he could have on those around him as a pastor. “There was a kind of yearning, and there was a kind of something burning in me and pressing me that you must do something, but it wasn’t quite clear,” he said. “And it wasn’t until I acknowledged my calling that I got relief from this.” So in 1970, he returned to Baylor to get a graduate degree in religion. Sadly, failing health eventually prevented him from finishing the program, but during that time, he became assistant director of the university’s Upward Bound program, which helped high school students from low-income families prepare for college.
After his Baylor years, Gilbert pastored at churches throughout Waco and the surrounding area, and was well known as a local civil rights leader. In 1976, he was the first African American elected to the Waco ISD school board. In 1979, he organized an action group that led to the hiring of Waco’s first African-American news anchor. And before his passing in 1992, he wrote two books: No Excuses Accepted, highlighting his childhood and how individuals can succeed despite handicaps, and When Your Days are Numbered, which aims to teach people how to die with dignity.
In 2007, Gilbert was honored with a memorial lamppost outside the Bill Daniel Student Center (SUB). In 2013, Baylor created the Robert Gilbert Outstanding Advocate Award in his honor; the award is given to one student each year who exhibits a true passion for and awareness of a social justice issue. And in 2020, Baylor’s Department of Religion established the Robert L. Gilbert Scholar in Religion Graduate Stipend in his honor.
Gilbert was no doubt a fighter. As he states in No Excuses Accepted, “God says, ‘You can!’ God says you can do anything. There is nothing on this earth strong enough to hold you back from what you can do for him. My life has tested the limits of God’s strength and power. Whatever he puts in your heart to do — you can do it!” That is why we’re BaylorProud.
Sic ’em, Rev. Gilbert, for your lifetime of service to others!
You might also like:
* Michael Heiskell: A BU pioneer as Baylor Law’s first black graduate (Feb. 2019)
* Barbara Walker: Social work leader and Baylor’s first female African-American graduate (Feb. 2017)
* First African American to play SWC football was a Baylor Bear (Feb. 2015)