By The Editorial Board
Over the course of the past month, we’ve seen Baylor’s announcement of the new monument to the unknown enslaved, an update on the first Black graduate statues and a number of events across campus celebrating Black History Month. But as March begins, we shouldn’t allow the conversations about race, justice and history to end. There is privilege in being able to walk away from those conversations and ignore the issues rather than living with them and the conversations as the reality you were born into.
We need to continue to educate ourselves about how oppression and the history of communities we are in every day intersect. One of those communities that applies to us all is Baylor and, subsequently, Waco.
A quick glance into the Commission on Historic Campus Representations will tell you Baylor has a long and challenging story with oppression. As a student, alum, parent, staff or faculty, you are associated with that history. In order to be better informed on how to move forward into your future, you must be familiar with where you come from. It’s your responsibility to know the full weight of where your degree is from, where you send your kids or what campus your office is on. Instead of just telling you to educate yourselves, we want to do our part as a newspaper to give you just a few pieces of the complex puzzle so you can be more knowledgeable even past Black History Month.
The unknown enslaved
The founders and early leaders of Baylor were slaveholders and many continued to justify and support slavery after the Civil War ended. The university’s namesake, Judge R.E.B. Baylor, owned slaves, who were considered a large portion of his wealth. In its final report, the Commission recommended the university renovate Founders Mall to include a monument to the unknown enslaved as a memorial to the slaves who played a fundamental role in building the original Baylor campus in Independence in the 1840s.
After the Civil War and Reconstruction of the South Ended, racism still coursed through the veins of the southern states. With slavery outlawed, lynchings became prevalent and revered. Between the years of 1885 and 1942, Texas had the third-most lynchings in the nation with approximately 468 — 339 of those victimizing Black people. In the Jim Crow era, lynchings included mutilation, burning people alive, hangings and even selling body parts of those lynched as souvenirs. Public lynchings were often a form of entertainment cloaked in a festive mood.
In May 1916, 17-year-old Jesse Washington was arrested for killing Lucy Fryer, a 53-year-old white woman. Washington admitted to raping and killing Fryer, and on May 15, 1916, Washington walked into a packed Waco courtroom with 12 white men as the jury. After four minutes of deliberation, he was found guilty and was brought outside by jailers.
A waiting mob of white citizens wrapped a chain around his neck and viciously beat and stabbed Washington as they dragged him to city hall grounds. The crowd poured coal oil over him and hung him from a tree over a burning pile of boxes. Between 15,000 and 20,000 people watched as Washington was lynched for two hours. Pictures from the event were sold for profit as postcards and prints that were distributed globally.
On Feb. 12, a historical marker was unveiled in downtown Waco to represent “The Waco Horror” after seven years of effort.
Through the mid-twentieth century, the federal government funded urban renewal projects to decimate pre-existing — and predominantly Black — neighborhoods with the goal of improving local architecture and expanding residential areas. Waco conducted 10 such projects, the most of any other Texas town. The first project, launched in 1957, was a partnership with Baylor University.
When the city cast a vote for the Baylor University Project in June 1958, the project was approved with 2,133 yeas to 293 nays. That morning, however, the rules around voting changed requiring all voters to own property. Notably, 70% of the people who would be removed from their homes by this project were renters and thus could not vote. The majority of them were also people of color.
In 1959, Baylor received federal approval of $67,474 for an 85-acre project that would force 209 families and 50 individuals out of their homes for “slum clearance.” The project was Waco’s first urban renewal project and saw the areas confined by Fourth and First Streets and Jones and Leila Avenues completely destroyed. Academic buildings, Moody Memorial Library, Jones Library, dorms and part of fountain mall replaced churches, homes and businesses.
The first Black graduates
After the 1963 vote to integrate the university, the Rev. Robert Gilbert and Barbara Walker became the first Black students to walk across the stage in 1967 and received their degrees in history and sociology, respectively. In an interview 50 years after their graduation, both recounted stories highlighting that their times at Baylor were not easy ones. To honor their stories, the university is erecting a statue for each of them in front of Tidwell Bible Building. Those statues are to be unveiled on April 4.
The first Black professor
Six years prior to Gilbert and Walker’s graduation, Dr. Vivienne Malone-Mayes applied to Baylor to get her Ph.D. in mathematics, but was rejected because of her race. In her rejection letter, the director of admissions wrote, “We have not taken down the racial barrier here … It seems that everyone is waiting for everyone else and no one will take the initiative in such matters.”
She instead went to the University of Texas and came back to Baylor after it’d been integrated to be a professor of mathematics in 1966. She was voted Outstanding Faculty Member of the Year in 1971 and taught at the university until she retired in 1994.
The Commission on Historic Campus Representations
In June 2020, the Board of Regents established the Commission as a group of 26 people who would review the history of the university in connection to slavery and the Confederacy. Six months later, the members of the Commission presented their recommendations to the Board Chair and University President. In March 2021, the final report was released to the public along with the announcement of two new statues on campus of the university’s first Black graduates.
These topics are only a few chapters of the intricate history of Waco and Baylor. Take this editorial as a stepping stone to becoming more familiar with the full story and use the knowledge to help educate other people too. Put yourself in spaces where you can meet people with backgrounds and experiences unlike your own. We need to get comfortable being uncomfortable in order to keep making strides toward a more equal and just society.