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First Black graduate of Baylor used his influence to institute change within university, Waco

Robert Gilbert
Posted at 3:49 PM, Feb 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-15 20:55:41-05

WACO, TX — A Waco man proved one person can make a huge difference in the world.

With vision and persistence, Reverend Robert Gilbert may have moved the civil rights needle in Central Texas more than anyone else. The first black graduate of Baylor University leveraged his influence to thoughtfully push for change at Baylor and in Waco.

"What Baylor was like when I was there, I would say that I felt as a person who was on a plantation," said Gilbert in an archived recording.

Most would agree Baylor today looks very different from the campus upon which Gilbert stepped as the man who would become the university's first Black graduate.

What today's students don't realize is Gilbert stepped onto a campus other Black students avoided over fears of rock-throwing students. But Gilbert had a single-mindedness about him that kept him out of trouble and earned him a degree as Baylor's first Black graduate.

”He was not just a trailblazer, but he was a trail maker,” said his son, Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert of Howard University.

Kenyatta says most describe his father as a pioneer and humanitarian whose influence changed Baylor and Waco. What Gilbert learned at Baylor helped him become a force for fairness far and wide, pushing Waco to widen its opportunities for people who before had little, if any, voice.

Gilbert spoke before the Waco City Council advocating for better wages for the poor and became the first Black teacher at an all-white school. Later a school board member, he helped guide Waco ISD toward integration.

”There are no obstacles that can't be overcome with faith in God, community support, sense of integrity, and a will to survive in this life,” said his son.

Kenyatta says his father used his status to bring together people of sometimes very different backgrounds to reach a common goal. Many call that his greatest gift, finding that common higher ground.

As a pastor, Gilbert spoke to people of all backgrounds in a way they all understood.

Today, even if they don't remember the man, students like Praise Ochei remember his message.

”And it helps crush like stereotypes, and he gets to know stuff about people. Individuals are not like groups and where they come from,” she said.

Today you'll find Gilbert's name on a memorial lamppost outside the Student Center. Baylor named its Outstanding Advocate Award for Gilbert and memorialized financial help for graduate students studying religion.

”My father's legacy lives on in people, and his commitment to community restoration, his commitment to the spiritual well being of all persons,” said Kenyatta.

"My role in the community is a kind of advocate role, trying to say things for those people who cannot say them for themselves," said Gilbert in a recorded interview.

People came to him for help, at a time when the community had few heroes to look up to. Gilbert accepted the responsibility as if it came from above, and helped lobby the Waco City Council for higher wages for low income workers.

At a time when, like today, protests filled the streets over demand for changes in civil rights, Gilbert chose to build consensus and use that influence to press leaders for change.

Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert of Howard University says his father intentionally chose the path of Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior.

”He was inspired, greatly inspired, by Dr. King in terms of his activism as a cleric and his pursuit of reform of the political establishment,” said his son.

An establishment that caused Gilbert to view the American flag with some suspicion over historical injustice, just as some people do today.

"I don't get any charge out of listening to the Star Spangled Banner. I refuse to salute the flag," said Gilbert in a historical recording.

Still, he worked to integrate the workforce too by helping promote jobs for minorities. All with a peaceful, caring approach.

”My father taught me how to be empathetic, to love people in spite of the faults and failings, meeting challenges and adversities with, you know, holding on to hope,” said his son.

It became a theme in Gilbert's life as he battled an arthritis condition that eventually took his life.

”A life cut short does not mean a life incomplete," said Kenyatta.

Today you can see subtle signs of his influence all over Waco. What would he think of last summer's protests?

"He would be rallying the people. You know he had me out with him pushing his wheelchair at protests,” said his son.

Kenyatta says peaceful influence and consensus make lasting change in the book of life.

”I would say to everyone who dares to make a difference in this life to accept no excuses and just to do what you understand God is calling you to do, and trust God, love the people,” said Dr. Gilbert of his father, who with each passing year, becomes more of an icon for Waco civil rights.