Despite many obstacles, Robert Gilbert offered “no excuses” when he found himself at the forefront of enacting racial integration and advancing civil rights in Waco. His efforts left an indelible mark on the city and Baylor University.
He was born on December 27, 1941, the fourth child of the Rev. B. F. Gilbert and his wife, Fannie Mae. The Gilbert household prized faith in God, education, and community service. Attending Waco’s segregated schools, Gilbert wanted to be a lawyer advancing the rights of African Americans. After graduating from A. J. Moore High School in 1960, he enrolled at Paul Quinn College. Following several years of study at Paul Quinn, Gilbert and his teachers realized a future legal career required he obtain a degree from Baylor University, which had only recently—in November 1963—voted to integrate.
Administrative and legal decisions do not generate immediate cultural change, a reality that confronted Gilbert as he began his studies at Baylor in summer 1965. The alienation and animosity he felt as a child growing up near the campus continued to form a large part of his experience as a student. He experienced isolation from his classmates, and while some faculty treated him with dignity, others proved overtly racist. Gilbert majored in history, which he enjoyed, but he soon acknowledged that a legal career was increasingly unlikely. For most of his adolescence, Gilbert resisted pastoral ministry, but soon the call to preach became too acute to ignore. In addition, doctors advised him that his poor health could not handle the stresses of practicing law.
Since the age of fourteen, Gilbert suffered from various types of arthritis that left him in constant pain and with impaired mobility. In his teens, it proved manageable with only an occasional flare-up. However, in July 1963, his condition deteriorated rapidly. Gilbert recovered and returned to college, though he now required a cane for support. Later on, joint deterioration led to numerous surgeries and eventually put him in a wheelchair. The visible specter of his arthritis plagued Gilbert for his entire life, but it also became the source of his testimony and vocation. Grappling with his arthritis proved God’s way of grabbing hold of Gilbert, calling him to a life of ministry and teaching, as well as instilling in him the faith and endurance required to overcome all impediments that lay ahead.
Gilbert’s faith-filled perseverance equipped him to break barriers and gave him an unquenchable thirst for justice. On June 2, 1967, Robert Gilbert became the first African American student to graduate from Baylor. By virtue of alphabetical order, Gilbert preceded his classmate Barbara Walker, who that day became Baylor’s first female African American graduate. After his graduation, Gilbert continued pioneering as the first black teacher at the all-white Tennyson Middle School. Another first included his summer role as assistant director of Baylor’s Upward Bound program to help train low-income students for college. Gilbert carried on all this work while also actively engaging in pastoral ministry.
To enrich his ministry, Gilbert returned to Baylor in 1970 to pursue a graduate degree in religion. However, another devastating turn in his health in 1971 left him unable to finish his studies, but not to pastor. He succeeded his father into the pulpits of Baptist churches in Bremond and Chilton, before in 1978, beginning a more than decade-long ministry at Waco’s Carver Park Missionary Baptist Church. Under his leadership, the congregation grew exponentially. Gilbert’s dynamic sermons and visible witness attracted people to him and to the gospel. His life held the power to convict and inspire, not only the people in his congregations, but all Wacoans as well.
The 1970s saw Gilbert take up his trailblazing mantel and use his status in the community to advocate for civil rights. Upset about the glacial pace of integration in Waco schools after the 1954 Brown decision, Gilbert served as the plaintiff in the NAACP case against the Waco Independent School District. His suit, combined with a similar case from Waco’s Hispanic community, became the 1973 Arvizu v. Waco ISD decision mandating the integration of several racially identifiable schools in Waco. In 1976, he was elected the first black member of Waco’s school board. Outside of education, Gilbert helmed the Association for Selective Career Opportunities that aimed to advance the hiring of minorities in fields where they were underrepresented. His experiences at the forefront of integration made him a catalyst for creating opportunities for other African Americans in Waco.
When he died on November 11, 1992, Robert Gilbert left a rich legacy of ministry and activism. In the last years of his life, through pain and numerous health struggles, he maintained his pastoral ministry, while also advocating for Waco and Baylor to diversify hiring. Today Gilbert’s communities honor his impact. For example, the Waco NAACP awards scholarships to high school graduates named for the Gilbert family. Captured by his 1988 autobiography title, No Excuses Accepted, Gilbert believed everyone was capable of achieving their goals, no matter the impediments. Grounded in faith and in pursuit of justice, he testified to that belief with his life, calling others to do the same.