As progress continues, Baylor, Waco still face historic racial injustices

Barbara Walker was the first Black female graduate from Baylor in 1967. She began school at Baylor shortly after they first integrated in 1963. Photo from the Baylor photo archives.

By Sarah Pinkerton | Staff Writer

Linda Lewis, resident of Waco since 1946, said that growing up in Waco, she was warned not to cross the Brazos River without an adult, go downtown or ride the bus alone.

“My grandfather didn’t believe that we should get in the back, so we just didn’t ride the bus,” Lewis said.

She said the Baylor campus was referred to as a “Sundown Town” while she was growing up, an area where Black citizens were warned not to be after sundown.

Her pen pal and friend, John Westbrook, was one of Baylor’s first Black students and the first Black athlete to play for both Baylor and the Southwest Conference. Westbrook often told Lewis stories of blatant aggression and racism on campus through letters throughout the late 1960s.

“His father was a Baptist preacher, and he thought he would open doors,” Lewis said.

While Baylor has made progressive steps since then, including the launch of the Commission on Historic Campus Representations within Baylor, it is undeniable that this history played a role in the early days of the university.

Baylor University was chartered in 1845, the same year Frederick Douglass released his famous story of slave brutality and freedom in “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and just 16 years before the Civil War began in 1861.

The war ended in 1865, but former slaves in the south were still under the “Black Codes,” the root of future “Jim Crow” laws, in former Confederate states.

While the daily life of slaves in Waco was not well documented, Dr. Kenneth Hafertepe, department chair and professor in museum studies at Baylor, said in an earlier interview with the Media and Public Relations office that “in a time period with less documentation, people in political power or with wealth were more heavily documented and those who were poor or enslaved were not,” and Waco was not an exception.

In 1881, the “Jim Crow” segregation laws expanded. There were 28 of these laws passed in Texas up until nearly 1960.

These laws separated individuals by race in public spaces such as railroads, waiting rooms, schools and libraries, barred Black individuals from marrying white individuals, with a punishment of imprisonment, and established poll taxes when voting.

In 1905, Sank Majors was lynched on the Washington Street steel bridge in Waco. An additional four other Black men were lynched in Waco until 1922.

In 1916, the infamous lynching of 17-year-old Jesse Washington occurred.

After being accused of murdering the wife of his white employer, Washington was dragged through the streets of downtown to City Hall where he was tortured, beaten and hung over burning wood.

According to the Waco Tribune-Herald, a crowd of 15,000 people watched, and nobody stepped in to intervene on the boy’s behalf. Souvenirs of his charred body and photos of the lynching turned into postcards were even sold afterwards.

This event did not receive press coverage by The Baylor Lariat at the time.

Lewis recounts that while she was growing up, many of her family members and friends continued to fear that they would receive the same fate.

“It is criminal. It’s mean. It certainly is evil — the whole issue of lynching,” Lewis said. “My parents and grandparents generally did not allow me to walk across the bridge … they hung people on the bridge too.”

She said when she worked for the city, she was given a staff button that was shaped like the bridge.

“I wouldn’t wear them,” Lewis said. “[My boss would] give them to me and I’d wear them that day and then I’d bring them home and put them in my jewelry box because … that bridge to Black people brings up memories.”

After World War II and into the mid 20th century, school integration became a topic of debate for Baylor.

According to an article written for the HESA Baylor History Project, a unanimous passage of a resolution by the Student Congress aimed to end segregation on campus in 1955.

“Although the university would not pass its own resolution to implement integration until 1963, the message conveyed by the passage of this resolution was clear, and the university would come to debate the issue both internally and within a larger state and national context for a period of several years,” the article said.

The university president at the time, Dr. William R. White, said he desired the Board of Trustees to authorize the decision to integrate, but he himself believed it would cause harm and conflict on campus.

The article recounts a story of Baylor graduate John Mills, who traveled as a missionary to Nigeria. He brought a man to know Christ while abroad, and the man felt a call to ministry and desired to study at Baylor, just as Mills had.

“Mills had the unfortunate task of informing this man that Baylor University had no place for him among its ranks,” the article said.

The push for integration continued from alumni as the Southern Baptist Convention showed its support of the Supreme Court’s ruling that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

President White pushed back as he built up the religious fervor of the school and decided to act as a mediator on the issue.

“One is able to see a confluence of faith, politics, economics, and a certain level of fear at the Baptist institution, as leaders like President White worked to bridge the gap between segregationist and integrationist factions,” the article said.

According to another article for the HESA Baylor History Project, Baylor trustee D.K. Martin thought that the Brown v. Board of Education decision was “lousy” and declared that this decision did not apply to the university.

He also wrote a letter to Earl Hankamer, benefactor of Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business and oil man, in which Martin stated “Anti-Segregation was the dirtiest slap at the South since the Reconstruction deal and dirt.”

The university then decided to take a more “moderate” position on the topic of integration at the school in order to lessen the feeling of alienation by white Baptists, a large area of support for the university.

“But it also diminished Baylor’s moral standing in the eyes of its more progressive constituents,” the article said.

Baylor voted to integrate the school on Nov. 1, 1963, and admitted its first Black students in 1964.

A year later, Linda Lewis’ friend, John Westbrook, attended Baylor for the first time.

Three years later, Reverend Robert Gilbert was Baylor’s first Black graduate in 1967. Barbara Walker followed shortly after him, in the same year, as the first Black female graduate.

An article released by Baylor Proud in 2016 discussed that even though he was allowed to attend the university, many students didn’t acknowledge Gilbert and even one of his first professors referred to him with a racial slur.

After graduating, he then became the first African American teacher at a local Waco middle school, and the article said that he was looked up to by many in the community.

Many of his students began to knock down their parents’ previous racist thinking.

Gilbert then returned to Baylor in 1970 to earn his graduate degree in religion, but was unable to finish his program due to health issues. He was able to become the assistant director of Baylor’s Upward Bound program, helping low-income high school students prepare for college.

Gilbert went on to become a pastor for many churches in Waco, a local civil rights leader, the first African American elected to the Waco ISD School Board in 1976 and the organizer of a group that hired Waco’s first African American news anchor in 1979.

Gilbert passed away in 1992.

In 2007, the university honored him with a memorial lamppost in front of the Bill Daniel Student Center and the Robert Gilbert Outstanding Advocate Award in 2013.

However, racial aggression did not end with his graduation from the university in 1967.

As recently as 2008, Election Day tension rose after Barack Obama was elected as the first Black president.

A rope was found on campus resembling a noose the day after the election, which was later reported to be a rope swing, but many students felt this was a cover-up for the incident.

However, instances of sign-burning outside of Brooks Village and shouting matches with racial slurs outside of Penland Residence Hall were also reported.

While this history isn’t new information, its impacts are often forgotten about in the modern day.

Even into 2016, a young Black girl attending Live Oak Classical School in Waco had a rope tied around her neck as she was dragged to the ground by classmates during a field trip. The school did not contact her parents after the incident, and was later ordered by a Texas jury to pay the family $68,000 in damages.

Growing up in east Waco, Lewis said she grew up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood.

“I’m from the generation that our parents and our teachers told us that they were preparing us for when integration was coming,” Lewis said. “It was something that was going to arrive.”

However, Lewis said she was also warned by family members that Waco may never change from the ways that she knew while she was growing up. After graduating as valedictorian from GW Carver High School, she went on to attend the University of Texas at Austin and returned to Waco after her father was diagnosed with cancer.

Lewis said this is often how those in her generation remain in their hometowns.

“It’s an issue that’s common with Black people of my generation,” Lewis said. “Their parents die, they may have the house or the property.”

She said she still experiences racial disparity in Waco today.

Dr. Stephen Sloan, associate professor of history and director of the Institute for Oral History, said many students don’t come into college with a solid and deep historical understanding of racial history.

“Baylor students have always struggled a bit to understand Waco or make an effort to understand Waco,” Sloan said. “If they have any sort of understanding of African American and Latino history, it’s usually a very narrow understanding.”

He said the modern-day racial movements often aren’t understood by students because they bring it down to an individual level.

“They say, ‘I don’t feel this way’ or ‘I don’t believe these things’ without understanding more at a community level and at a cultural level, the way that these things have been real forces that have worked,” Sloan said. “They don’t acknowledge the deep ways in which it matters at a much broader level than that.”

Sloan also added that Waco has a rich history of perseverance.

“It’s not just a story of marginalization and abuse,” Sloan said. “There’s also amazing stories of resilience and overcoming and success. Anytime you try to oversimplify anyone’s experience, you’re doing them a disservice.”

Dr. Ronald Johnson, Ralph and Bessie Mae Lynn Chair of History, emphasized the importance of celebrating the achievements of our history while also identifying the errors.

He discussed an example of a student during his second week teaching a U.S. history course on campus. The class had an unpleasant discussion regarding the lynching of Jesse Washington. He said that a white student in his class then asked their roommate to visit the lynching site with them and then shared the information with their parents.

“I could not be more proud!” Johnson said. “Waco’s history of racial injustice inspired that Baylor student to become more engaged with the city they presently call home.”

Johnson said combating racism is a marathon that requires denouncing white supremacy wherever it exists within our community.

“The Board of Regents’ resolution on racial healing, President Livingstone’s conversation series on race and the Lariat’s editorial [that cals out the university’s racist history] on Sept. 23 are positive strides towards acknowledging our history of racist activity,” Johnson said. “We all must sustain the momentum.”

Dr. Sloan said the classroom continues to be a way in which these views can be challenged and examined in a deeper way.

In the history department’s Statement on Racial Justice released on July 10, 2020, the department recognized Baylor’s rocky past.

“As historians, we are also keenly aware that, as was the case in many places around the country, at Baylor, emancipation and the end of the Civil War did not bring peace, justice, or equity to Black Americans,” the statement said.

It also recognizes the discrimination that Black Americans have faced for years and the violence that has prevented them from receiving housing, healthcare and education and how this has impacted the university.

“As teachers and mentors, we commit to examining the ways in which our own scholarly and classroom practices might perpetuate systemic racism rather than address, confront, and/or actively work against it,” the statement said.

The statement continues on to say that the Baylor community must acknowledge how the consequences of the past have shaped the modern day.

“Decades of injustice cannot be easily overcome, nor can we pretend that we live in a world — or on a campus — free from all forms of hate or inequity,” the statement said.

North Little Rock, Ark., senior and president of the Black Student Union, Mya Ellington-Williams, said the commitment to preparing students for “worldwide leadership and service” is immense, and she feels Baylor is unprepared in some areas.

“Worldwide leadership and service requires preparing students to address the inequalities and injustices in our world,” Ellington-Williams said.

Lewis urges students to look outside the Baylor bubble.

“Even in my encounters with the people who are now 40, maybe approaching 50, that went to Baylor, they may have a very good education, but they are still surprised about racial disparity and poverty,” Lewis said.

She also emphasized that the current progress being made cannot be stopped.

“You can get in the front and help lead the parade,” Lewis said. “Or you can stay behind and complain and get run over by the parade.”