Barbara Walker: social work leader, and Baylor’s first female African-American graduate
On June 2, 1967, Barbara Walker, BA ’67, graduated from Baylor with her degree in sociology. When she crossed the Commencement stage and received her diploma that day, Walker earned the distinction of becoming the first African-American woman to graduate from Baylor. (Just moments before, her classmate, Robert Gilbert, BA ’67, had received his degree in history to become Baylor’s first African-American graduate.)
This spring marks the 50th anniversary of that historic graduation ceremony — but that’s not where Walker’s story begins or ends.
Well before coming to Baylor, Walker displayed academic abilities that foreshadowed her success on campus. She grew up in Redbird, Okla., and graduated from high school at the age of 15. In 1963, she enrolled at Paul Quinn College in Waco to study math. That same year, Baylor students voted to integrate the student body, and the Board made it official that November. Suddenly, the door was open for Walker and other African-Americans to come to the university, and two different Paul Quinn professors encouraged her to register and become one of the first.
Less than a year later, she was a Baylor student, and one who was eager to become part of the campus community. Almost immediately, she had to stand up for her right to do so.
“The summer before I got to Baylor they informed me that I had been assigned a private room. I wrote back to them and told them I thought Baylor was integrated, and that I didn’t understand why I was being separated,” Walker told Baylor Magazine. “I understand that a dean during one of the meals told [a group of white female students] that a Negro girl was coming in the fall, and asked if anyone would like to be her roommate. Several people volunteered.”
Having overcome her initial challenge, Walker moved in with her roommate in Memorial Hall. She says she found students across campus to be welcoming. As a senior, she joined the Chis, a women’s social service club. When she performed in their routine in 1967’s All-University Sing, records indicate she became the first African-American to take part in the legendary Baylor tradition.
Academically, Walker also excelled amidst change. After coming to Baylor, she realized her calling was to help others, and so she pursued a career in social work. Although some professors ignored her presence in class, others took a keen interest in her, and she credits their guidance for helping her long after her time at Baylor was through. She finished her historic walk at the Spring 1967 Commencement with a sociology degree in hand, and later earned her master’s degree in social work from Florida State.
Her vocational path led her to serve individuals with mental health needs in a variety of roles. Walker spent 32 years as a licensed clinical social worker, and led the state of California’s Department of Mental Health’s inpatient and outpatient mental health programs for many years. Although her career took her far away from Baylor, she has returned many times to share her experiences with Baylor students. Thanks to her courage and grace, many future students have been able to share in the same Baylor experience that she carried long after her time on campus was through.
“A great opportunity has been set before you,” Walker told students at one such visit. “You have the privilege to learn and grow, not only in your field of study, but most importantly, to learn more about who God is and how he wants to use your life… When I graduated from Baylor in 1967, I never thought my life would be where it is today. Through all of my years, I have found that God has provided an encourager. In spite of the challenges that were met, for every bad experience that I had here, God blessed me with three fantastic experiences that far outweighed those bad ones.”
Sic ’em, Barbara Walker!