Barbara Walker

Season 6 - Episode 626

June 30, 2023

Barbara Walker
Barbara Walker

A trailblazer, social worker, civil servant and leader, Barbara Walker was Baylor University’s first Black female graduate. This Spring, statues of Walker and Rev. Robert Gilbert, Baylor’s first Black male graduate, were dedicated in front of Baylor’s Tidwell Bible Building. In this Baylor Connections, Ms. Walker shares stories from her time at Baylor and her career in social work, and examines what it means to see a statue which immortalizes her contributions for future generations.

Transcript

Derek Smith:

Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week we go in depth with Baylor Leaders, professors, and more discussing important topics in higher education, research, and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and today we are honored to be joined by a Baylor Trailblazer, Ms. Barbara Walker, a trailblazer, social worker, civil servant, and a Baylor legend. In 1967, she became the first Black female graduate of the university and one of the first two Black graduates along with Reverend Robert Gilbert. An Oklahoma native, she came to Baylor and earned a degree in sociology, then went on to Florida State University where she earned a master's degree in social work, before embarking on a more than 30 year career serving mental health needs in California. There, she led the state of California's Department of Mental Health programs for a number of years as a licensed clinical social worker helping patients transition from the state hospitals into homes and jobs. Ms. Walker says that some of her most satisfying work was in her private practice, working with parents whose children had been removed from their homes. Last spring, a statue of Walker was erected outside the Tidwell Bible Building, along with Reverend Gilbert, forever immortalizing their time and impact on campus and on future generations of Baylor students and family members. Boy, a lot of ground we can cover today and talk to you, but first off, just thanks so much for taking the time to join us, Ms. Walker. It's honor to have you, and I'm excited to visit with you today on Baylor Connections.

Barbara Walker:

Well, thank you for asking me. I really appreciate that.

Derek Smith:

Well, it's been certainly a meaningful last few months for you at Baylor. I had the chance to see you and hear your great speech at the unveiling this spring of the statue. Let's just start there. How did it feel for you to be back on campus and to see that statue for the first time?

Barbara Walker:

It was kind of surreal and really wonderful. So many of my family members were able to come and to be there with me, and that really made it even more special, because I had no idea that they were even thinking about coming with me, and about 50 of them showed up. It was wonderful. It was really great.

Derek Smith:

When did you first find out that the statue was even a possibility? How far back does that go and what was your reaction?

Barbara Walker:

I can't remember who the person was that called me and informed me, but it was about a year and a half before, I guess, almost two years before the unveiling, because they included Robert's family and me in choosing the person, the sculptor, who would be the one to do it for us. We had the Zoom all set up. We had a chance to interview all... I think about five people who applied.

Derek Smith:

Well, and ultimately it was Ben Victor who put the statues together and we're going to talk to you about that. We were pleased to have Kenyatta Gilbert on the program recently, and he spoke highly of that process and excited to hear your thoughts as well as we visit with Ms. Barbara Walker. Ms. Walker, I'm curious, let's go back to 1967, and actually a little bit before, during your time at Baylor as a student. When you were here, did you see yourself as a Trailblazer? Did you see yourself as a young woman in that role? Take us back to your mindset that time.

Barbara Walker:

Well, I never even thought about trailblazing or doing anything. I was purely there to get an education. I just wanted a quality education. I didn't even know anything about Baylor, except I was at Paul Quinn my freshman year and I had a couple of professors who had taught at Baylor, and the math teacher was still teaching at Baylor. Both of them really encouraged me. They both felt that Paul Quinn was a little bit below what I was capable of doing and that I should seriously look at going to look at Baylor. I was just looking to get a good quality education and the thought of anything else really didn't even occur to me.

Derek Smith:

Who were your biggest encouragements in pursuing higher education? Obviously you came from Oklahoma to Central Texas, which seems like it helped open the doors, you said, to come to Baylor.

Barbara Walker:

Yeah. Well, it's interesting, I guess in a way my mother more than anyone because of the example that she had set in because she was so much into education. But growing up, it seems as though... I think it was just really God that was my biggest encourager because my family really didn't talk about education. But I can remember even from a very young child, it was always in my head that I was going to college. I never even thought. There was no way I was going to be chopping cotton for the rest of my life. I was just not going to do that. It was just implanted in me, just the environment that I grew up in, that there had to be a better way.

Derek Smith:

I recall you mentioned your mother at your speech back in the spring, and that was really meaningful to hear that and to hear what she meant to you, as we visit with Ms. Barbara Walker. You come to Baylor. You're pursuing your degree. What were your emotions like? Was it excitement, nervousness, all of the above? What take us inside what you were thinking as you stepped on campus and really poured yourself into student life?

Barbara Walker:

Well, I was really excited. I don't know, it never frightened me. From the minute that I got to Baylor, there were students who just came up to me to be my friend and became friends that were friends with me. Some of them had transferred and left, but the majority of them, they stayed my friends the whole time I was there at Baylor. Their welcoming was so much more than what I had expected. I had expected coming from the South that there would be a lot more conflict, but it wasn't. They really went out of their way to make me feel welcome, and I appreciate that. I'm still friends with some of them still today.

Derek Smith:

That's wonderful. Now, were there challenges? It sounds like you said there really weren't a lot, but were there challenges you faced as a student?

Barbara Walker:

I think that probably the biggest challenges I faced was getting used to the class, doing the classes and the homework and preparing for tests, because I came from... Coming from a small Black community, and then my high school years were spent... Our schools were consolidated. We lost our school there in Redbird, and we went to Porter, which was before that was an all white school. All of the teachers were white, and it helped. I can see as I got to Baylor that it helped me a lot to have had that background because they introduced me a lot to classes and things that I otherwise would not have been had Redbird not lost its school. For me, I found that to be my biggest challenge, just the school and the adapting to the school work. Students, there were always those who could make little snide remarks, but I didn't pay that any attention. I was so happy to be at Baylor. I was not going to let anything deter me. They just were not significant to me.

Derek Smith:

Very focused. I've always heard you describe it, but it's neat to hear that as we visit with Ms. Barbara Walker. Did you know Reverend Gilbert very well as a student?

Barbara Walker:

Robert came the year after I did. I came in '64. He came in '65. We met and we talked, and sometimes we'd get together at the student union. But Robert lived off campus because he was from Waco and I lived in the dormitory. We didn't have any classes together, so there was nothing that really brought us together, except us going out of our way and spending some time together in the student union and talking like that. But that was pretty much it. Then once when I came back to one of Baylor's Homecoming, we spent some time together. He gave me his first book that he had written, and I got to visit his church where he was currently pastoring. That was a nice experience.

Derek Smith:

He also sounds like a really amazing man as well.

Barbara Walker:

Robert, I admired him so much because he let nothing deter him. He was very focused. He knew what he wanted, and he was not going to allow his physical disabilities persuade him to do anything less. I can remember once we were talking, Robert had said, "My standards for who I would choose to be my life's partner is no different. People think just because I have this handicap that I should lower my status, but I don't. My standards are still the same." That's evident with the wonderful wife he chose and the beautiful children that he had.

Derek Smith:

Visiting with Ms. Barbara Walker. Ms. Walker, it seems like when you were on campus that you really poured yourself into campus life. Was that the case? And if so, what were some of the activities that you were involved in beyond the classroom that really stood out to you?

Barbara Walker:

Well, I joined Chis, which was a social service club, which was really nice to have them welcome me there. We had a lot of activities going on besides the social aspect. We did volunteer work at some of the centers in the community, and especially with working with children, just all kinds of things. Great fundraising, that was such an important part for me. And plus, I noticed a change when I'm there at Baylor now with the churches, because Baylor was much smaller then. Baylor was, what, about 5,000 students. The churches were all really involved with making sure that Baylor students were making a good transition from home. Every Sunday evening, there were about six different churches that had fellowship with all kinds of activities and then having worship services for us. I was very much involved with that. Went through that all the time. Several times I was invited to speak and to share my story during that time. It was great. It was really great for me. I know my grand... No, I guess it was one of my grandson, but some of the other relatives, they said, "I don't understand why you were so crazy about Baylor." I said, "Well, if you had been growing up in the time that I was with Redbird and all of the things, you would well understand, you would well understand," because I really felt like I was really rescued from a situation that only Baylor could do.

Derek Smith:

Wow. Who were some of the people on campus? You mentioned some friends. Were there faculty members, administrators, professors who stood out to you as having a big impact on part of the reason you love Baylor now?

Barbara Walker:

One, my sociology professor, Dr. Harold Osborne. I think he probably had the most influence on me than any of my teachers at Baylor. Even though he was not my faculty advisor, but he really took on that role. He's the one that encouraged me. He's the one that helped me to get the scholarship to go to Florida State, and just encouraged me when they were wanting to know. They always have to interview professors if you're going to pledge in one of those clubs on campus. He was the one that had a really strong influence in them accepting me into Chis. He meant a lot to me. There was also my English teacher, Mrs. Anne Miller. She was an outstanding lady. I really loved and appreciated her so much. And then what I call our dorm mom, Mrs. Cox. I spent all my years in Memorial Dorm and she was the dorm mom there, and she was really great, very accepting, very warm person.

Derek Smith:

You talk about a number of people and Dr. Osborne's influence on you going to Florida State and your career. I want to ask you about that in just a moment. But before I do, before we move on from Baylor, I'm curious, commencement 1967, do any memories particularly stand out to you on the day that you received your diploma and walked the stage?

Barbara Walker:

Oh, besides being really happy that it was over, but I guess the thing I remember most was the fact that my mom came. My mother had not really... I'm the second set of children. My mother, she had 13 children and I was the youngest of the ones that survived, nine of us survived. I guess she was just tired, so she did not attend any of the activities that I participated in. We had eighth grade graduation. I finished a year early at Porter, so I didn't have a Porter graduation. I just felt it was just really special to me that she showed up and she said, "Oh yeah, your dad told me." My dad had brought her ticket or on the bus and given her money to make sure she'd be able to get there safely. That just meant a lot to me. And then my older brother, someone who... Elsa, he was in the military. He arranged and showed up also totally unexpected, he and his family. Those are the memories that I have that really meant a lot to me. Plus, saying goodbye to so many of the friends that I had met, knowing that most likely I would never see a lot of them again. Plus, I had gotten those grant to go to Florida State to get my master's degrees. That was on my mind too. I just knew that I had a plan. There was something beyond Baylor that I was really looking forward to. It was great.

Derek Smith:

This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Ms. Barbara Walker. Ms. Walker, let's talk about that. I think when people at Baylor hear your name, people know your historic role at Baylor. But if we were to visit California, and a lot of the offices you worked in, they know you for your work for three decades plus in social work and in California and for really serving people so well. You went from Baylor to Florida State, and then what was the path that led you eventually to California and the California Department of Mental Health?

Barbara Walker:

That was in 1969. During that time, several states were in the process of clearing their state mental hospitals and placing people into the community. Master's level social workers were the ones that were pretty much just specified as the group that would be involved with that. Many of the states were busily pursuing master's level social workers out of graduate school. The State of California Department of Mental Health actually sent a team to Florida State. Florida State, we graduated earlier than all the other schools. We graduated in March, where the other schools didn't get out either until May or June. They were right there before graduation, was offering us opportunities. I signed up right then and started working at community services branch that was located in South Gate, California, which was just a very short distance from where my sister lived. My sister lived in California. She was one of the reasons why I ended up coming to California. I had the job already there. Working with the outpatient services, we were training family care homes to be able to take in the patients that were being discharged. Some were being discharged into their own homes as well, so we followed those as well. And then from there, after I had worked there for a while, I decided to transfer into the state hospital, the state mental hospital that we were receiving a lot of those outpatients from. I worked there on the units with individual and group therapy and also helping to place patients. I got to lead the team on this... The jails. We had a large population of patients who they were ending up in jails, but really had mental health problems. They finally recognized that and established the unit there at Metropolitan State Hospital and I worked with them. And that was very interesting. Then I went back into the community again as the coordinator for placing patients out of the state hospitals in our area. We were placing them from several different hospitals. I would go and visit the patients there, interview them, interview their staff, and looking at finding the best setting for them. Also worked with training boarding care operators that were taking in patients because family care were small, where the boarding care homes were much larger. They had much more... Supposed to have more opportunities than what family care homes were able to offer. I did that. The last thing I did with the state was led the team with... As a staff mental health specialist, we oversaw the federal dollars that were coming in the county mental health, both on the inpatient and the outpatient level. We managed that, making sure that the dollars were being spent like they were supposed to, making sure that there was equity, there was not racial discrimination in how the monies were allocated. That was what I retired with.

Derek Smith:

If you think about all the moving parts, I would imagine to what you just described, what were some of the biggest challenges that were meaningful to overcome for you in terms of serving your clients and your patients? And then what moments were most meaningful to you personally, just in interacting with people that you were helping?

Barbara Walker:

Well, I guess the biggest challenges were just getting the community on board and accepting patients coming back into the community so that we had community awareness and working with people to help them to understand and to accept our patients and to not be so frightened of them because people really have a thing about being afraid of mental patients, but some of these patients had been in the hospital. Oh, I had so many on my ward there at Metropolitan State Hospital. Their families had left them there as young people, and some of them had been there like 20 and 30 years just sitting on the units, not doing anything. I remember one man in particular. He was the nicest man, and he was working all over the hospital and doing the yards for the doctors and everything. I asked him one day, "Would you like to go into the community? Would you like to leave here?" He said, "Yes, I would." He was real excited about it. He left and he never came back. He did not return. He stayed out in the community the whole time. He did. He made a beautiful adaption, adapting to that. That was really fulfilling and rewarding. One of the things that I liked especially though, was once I had my license and was a licensed clinical social worker, I was able to go into private practice as well. I had a private practice on the side of working with parents whose children had been removed from the home because of different reasons. Some were just neglect, some were abuse, some were drugs involved. To work with those parents and to help them to be able to get to the point where they could have their children back at home and how they could accept. Big thing with them was really being able to accept themselves. There's a lot of very, very low self-confidence and self-esteem involved. That was very rewarding for me. I enjoyed that most of all.

Derek Smith:

I don't want to draw to a connection where there's maybe not, but as you describe working with community, helping people accept mental health patients as they were integrated back into the community, were you and your colleagues really trailblazers in that area as well in the 1970s? Was that another area which you were maybe on the early wave of making a difference?

Barbara Walker:

Probably so, because we were the first... Let me see. I graduated in '69 from Florida State. The placing patients in the home, it just started on a very small scale. But California had passed legislation in 1968, what we call the LPS Act, Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, in which it mandated that patients be prepared to move into the community. California was one of the leaders in starting that, in placing patients into the home and working in the community.

Derek Smith:

Visiting with Ms. Barbara Walker and talking about your career as a social worker, a public servant, both with the state and in private practice. As we head into the final few minutes of the program, I want to ask you a little bit more, transition back to talking about the statue that's now in front of Tidwell Bible Building. Anyone can walk by and see the statues of you and Reverend Gilbert. We talked to you about finding out about it in the last couple of years. But once you found out that this was going to happen and that you could play a role in it, what was important to you? What were your goals, your priorities in working with both the sculptor and the university and putting together the right thing for you and for the Gilbert family as well?

Barbara Walker:

Well, working with Benjamin Victor, that was quite an experience. He is the most humble person. He has so much passion in the work that he does, and he really puts himself into what he's doing. I know before we did the sculpture, before we're choosing, before we had the interviews, he had taken the time to delve into both Roberts and my past and looking at what was the situation going on in our lives during the '60s and the environment and the community and all of those things. It was just such an emotional thing just to hear him talk. I mean, when he talked, he was the last one I think that interviewed. When he talked, it was just hands down. We didn't even have any doubt that he was the one that we were both choosing. When I talked to Robert's family, they felt the same way. They had that same thing. I don't know if I'm answering your question or not.

Derek Smith:

That's great.

Barbara Walker:

We worked with him the whole time. He was always calling, emailing me as he progressed with the statue, knowing what it is that, what outfit I wanted to have on there, how I wanted my hair done, how I wanted to stand. Just everything. He sent, I guess, those models. He sent pictures of the models and suggestions that I had. There were a few suggestions I had made that I wanted changed. He, no problem, changed it and did it without any question about it at all. That was really great. I'm very glad that I had that working relationship with him because he was the one that really kept in touch with me for me to know what was going on.

Derek Smith:

What was it about Benjamin Victor? Obviously a very talented artist, but what was it about him in those interview processes that both you and the Gilberts knew, this is the one?

Barbara Walker:

His warmth. The way he talked about what he had wanted to do, what is it he wanted to portray in his work. And then, for instance, with Robert, I don't know if Kenyatta shared, but they had to make little sculptures of us to present at the thing, and he had made the one of Robert. He said he knew when he looked at it that there was something missing. He couldn't figure out. Ooh, there's something missing. He said it came to him late at night. He got up and worked all night to make that little tiny little bible that Robert was holding in for that little statue. Just to put that much energy and that concern in it that he wanted, and it was perfect. It really helped to portray who Robert was. Just things like that. He was so willing after that to keep in touch with me, I know, and shared with me constantly what was going on and everything. He made me feel like he was part of my family. He's something special.

Derek Smith:

That's wonderful. You could see the fruit of his work. Definitely the right guy, for sure.

Barbara Walker:

Yes.

Derek Smith:

Well, Ms. Walker, as we wind down on the program, I want to ask you, my final question for you is, I asked you what it was like for you seeing the statue. When people come and see the statues here of you and Reverend Gilbert in the weeks ahead and even further than that, in the months and years ahead, what do you hope people see, what do you hope they think about, what do you hope they feel when they see those statues?

Barbara Walker:

Well, for African Americans, I would hope that they would see that as a sign that says, "I can do it. I can make it. I can do this too. I can finish school and do something with my life." That is what I would hope they would get the encouragement. With everyone though, I would really hope that they would see that as a stepping stone and a desire to get to know people of other groups that are different from them because they really missed such an opportunity. I think of all the opportunities so many of the people at Baylor missed out who did not bother to get to know me. I thought they really lucked out. They really missed something special by not getting to know me when I was there, but I would hope that they would see it as them reaching out to one another to really try to get to know people of other races and other ethnic groups. That it would be a unifying force on the campus for them.

Derek Smith:

Absolutely. Well, Ms. Walker, it's really meaningful to see your statue and Reverend Gilbert's as well, and it's been very meaningful to have you on the program today. All of us at Baylor owe you a debt of gratitude. I want to thank you for coming on and taking the time to share today.

Barbara Walker:

Well, thank you for having me. I really have enjoyed it.

Derek Smith:

That's wonderful. Again, we hope people, if they haven't, will take the time to visit the front of the Tidwell Bible Building and take a look at these statues in the weeks ahead. Ms. Barbara Walker, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connects.