Gilbert grew up the son of a delivery driver and a domestic worker on Savannah’s eastside. As a youth, he and his family lived on East Bolton Street and on Paulson Street. His parents were Chester and Albertha Gilbert. The family attended Beulah Baptist Church.
As a youth, like many other lads, he played sports. He attended Old Paulson, Spencer Elementary and Hubert Junior High schools. When it came time to attend high school, Gilbert started out at Johnson High but switched to Savannah High School. “My transfer to Savannah High School was a result of integration and busing. Savannah High became the school in my district.”
Gilbert was a four-sport athlete while in high school. “My high school coaches were John Myles and Richard Mole at Johnson High. I played football, basketball and baseball at Johnson High. Arvel Holmes, Chester Gayheart, Bill Smiley and Benny Tew were my coaches at Savannah
High School where I played football, baseball and ran track.”
Gilbert made history while playing for the Blue Jackets, becoming the first African American quarterback to graduate from SHS. “ I’ve never given it that much thought, however, I’m very proud to hear others tell me about what impact I had on their lives for who I am. I thank God for that every day.”
Larry Bartley was the first African American quarterback at Savannah High but he died of a heart attack at halftime of a basketball game he was playing in, according to Gilbert. He added that racism was alive while he was at the Washington Avenue-based school.
“During my tenure at Savannah High, I did experience some racism. However, being the only Black male student in an advanced English class and being the top student changed a lot of attitudes. I was taught to be the best person you were raised to be and it would all work out. It worked out just fine.”
Living in the 1960s in the south was a struggle for many African Americans but Gilbert said that it was not the case for him. “Growing up in Savannah in the 60s was actually fun. Nestled in our segregated communities forced us to depend on and take care of one another. We were taught to be true friends and family. However, outside of our community, it was easy to be confronted with racism, in which I had a few episodes.”
Gilbert’s states that as a tenth grader at Johnson he had the best batting average in the region, batting over .400 and was named Rookie of the Year. At Savannah High, he said that he was an all-city quarterback, Most Valuable Player, captain of the football team and was one of the first Blacks to earn an outstanding senior award. His play on the field also got the attention from college scouts. Georgia Tech, The Citadel and Presbyterian College recruited Gilbert to play quarterback while the University of Georgia, Newberry and Delaware State wanted Gilbert to play defensive back. In the end, he selected to stay home and attend Savannah State. “ I chose Savannah State because my mother was a single parent at the time and I chose to stay close to home to help out.” While at Savannah State, Gilbert’s major was criminal justice and he recalls Otis Johnson, Annette Brock and Norman Elmore as being his favorite instructors.
He added that he had some unforgettable times while being at the College by the Sea. “My most cherished memories are being selected as Savannah State College Man of the Year.” He added that the award stands out to him because it recognized his academic achievements and for being an honor graduate, not for being just a good athlete. Gilbert was also a member of Pi Gamma Mu honor society and captured the Mr. Cupid Award for being most popular at on the campus.
In 1973, he along with four others became members of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity.
Playing for John Myles and Frank Ellis, Gilbert was a standout athlete in baseball and football. He played center-field in baseball and defensive back in football. “My freshman year I played strong safety. My next three years I played cornerback. Frankie Harper, Carlton Moffet, Lee Blitch, James Bailey, Fletcher Scott, John Westberry and Jimmy Thompson were the main defensive backs I played with.”
Gilbert led the baseball team with a .466 batting average as a freshman during the 1972 season. In addition to playing defensive back in football, Gilbert also played on special teams as a kicker, punt returner and kick returner. As a punt returner, he posted averages of 11.5, 12.8 and 10.9 yards his sophomore thru senior seasons and had a career average of 20.5 yards in kickoff returns in his four years. “Flea Flicker”, as he was known to some, won many awards for his efforts on the playing fields such as the Falcon Club’s Most Valuable Player, the Coca Cola Golden Helmet Award for being the football team MVP and the baseball team MVP. He was a Black College All American honorable mention also made the All-SIAC football and baseball teams and the All-SIAC academic teams in addition to being Who’s Who Among College Athletes of America.
Professional scouts took notice of his abilities which led to football try-outs with the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Oilers. Gilbert also had a “brief stint” with The Atlanta Braves organization. After getting his degree and realizing that his hopes of being a professional athlete was melting, Gilbert became an English teacher at Bartlett Middle School. He later worked for Savannah Gas Company and was promoted to Corporate Manager of Human Resources. He later went to work at Verizon Wireless and retired in January 2017.
Although he is retired now, he enjoys spending time with his wife of 32 years, Yolanda. The couple, who lives outside of Atlanta, has two children. “I miss the easy access to fresh seafood and Savannah cooking and of course, some very dear friends,” when asked what he misses about living in Savannah.