Barbara Walker, BS ’67, is known throughout the Baylor Family for her significance in the University’s history as Baylor’s first female African-American graduate 50 years ago, yet her legacy extends far beyond campus.
After Walker’s 32-year social work career with the State of California, countless families there are thankful she heeded a call to service as a Baylor student.
Baylor students voted to integrate in 1963, and Walker was one of the first African-American students to attend. Robert Gilbert, BA ’67, received his degree to become Baylor’s first African-American graduate moments before Walker received her degree in sociology at the June 2, 1967, commencement ceremony. (Read more about Walker and Gilbert’s Baylor experiences in “50 Years After Graduation,” Baylor Magazine Winter 2017.)
Although well-prepared to be a trailblazer, Walker did not see herself as such when she came to Baylor in 1964. She grew up in the all-black town of Redbird, Oklahoma, and was in high school when integration consolidated her school into nearby Porter High School.
“That was really the last thing on my mind,” Walker says. “More so, I had professors who felt I would be able to meet the challenges at Baylor and that it was a place where I could reach my potential. I was used to the environment of learning in an integrated situation from high school, so it didn’t feel strange to be with people different from myself. Going to Baylor was a continuation of that for me.”
Walker began her collegiate career Paul Quinn College, which was then based in Waco. After transferring to Baylor, she threw herself into student life at Baylor and remembers her time on campus as life-changing. Walker sought opportunities to plug in and get involved with other students, and she found most students to be welcoming in return.
“So many students really wanted to be friends and made me feel very welcome,” she says. “I never felt like an outsider, and I think they wanted this to be a positive experience. They saw what was happening at other colleges, and I think they did not want that to be a part of their history. To tell the truth, I had very few negative experiences.”
“I love Baylor. I really had some beautiful experiences (there) and found the students to be so loving.”
Walker joined the CHIS and loved involvement with her fellow sisters in group service projects. She also participated in Sing! and is believed to be the first African-American participant in the campus tradition.
Academically, Walker began as a math major but felt a calling to serve others in a different way. One class she was taking stood out: sociology. Baylor did not have a social work department at the time, but Walker’s interaction with Dr. Harold Osborne, longtime chair of Baylor’s sociology department, was influential.
“I really liked the course material, but also his kindness and the way he interacted with students,” Walker says. “He was voted a favorite teacher several years while he was there. Dr. Osborne suggested I look into social work. He really mentored me and eventually helped me get a scholarship to get my master’s degree at Florida State.”
Unknown to Walker, as she was heading to Florida State University in fall 1967, the State of California was preparing to dramatically enhance its mental health services to residents and would need a new generation of social workers to head west. Walker accepted the call. After graduation, she packed her Volkswagen and headed to Los Angeles where she built her career as an angel to many.
Walker spent the next 32 years serving the mental health needs of Californians in a variety of roles. She eventually oversaw inpatient and outpatient services for the California Department of Mental Health, helping patients transition from state hospitals into homes and jobs. Her work was responsible for three decades of patients finding the help that was right for them and receiving assistance to transition back into jobs and the community after treatment.
“It was so wonderful to see so many people come out of state hospitals—some of whom were there for no reason other than a relative had them sent there—and see them do well,” Walker says. “Almost all of the patients we initially placed out of the hospital never came back. Coming up with creative ways to help people thrive was so meaningful to me and made such a difference.”
In addition to assisting mental health patients, Walker developed programming to support parents. She worked in neighborhoods where residents often could not afford services and formed a ministry that provided free resources to help parents grow in their understanding and support for their loved ones. Professionally, her passion to support parents led to work with parents whose children had been taken away. As Walker worked with parents and patients alike, she saw in countless ways how her calling to social work was a calling to minister.
“It was so satisfying to see families who went through the programs and ‘got it,’” Walker says. “You’d see that difference, and they would eventually be able to have their children return home. That was really great. That’s one of those ways that you can use what you’re doing to minister to people.”
Walker retired in 2001 and moved to Arizona with her daughter. Over the years, she’s returned to Baylor many times to address students. She also visits her grandson Kristoff Firedancing, a University Scholar at Baylor who is scheduled to graduate in December.
In a 2000 campus speech, Walker said, “A great opportunity has been set before you. 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.”
With each Walker visit, a new generation of students is introduced to a Baylor alumna who left a legacy. Her love for the University shines through, and her message to students is uplifting and encouraging.
“I love Baylor,” Walker says. “I really had some beautiful experiences (there) and found the students to be so loving. I tell students now, ‘Don’t give up’ and ‘Don’t isolate. Go for it. Reach out.’”
Walker views her career in social work as a service to the Lord.
“He opened every door to make that possible,” she says. “How could I not also give Him His due?”