The History of Wiley College

In 1873, less than eight years after all hostilities were quieted from the Civil War, the Freedman’s Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church founded Wiley College near Marshall, Texas for the purpose of allowing Negro youth the opportunity to pursue higher learning in the arts, sciences and other professions.

Named in honor of Bishop Isaac William Wiley, an outstanding minister, medical missionary and educator, Wiley College was founded during turbulent times for Blacks in America.  Although African-American males were given the right to vote in 1870, intimidation of America’s newest citizens in the form of violence increased.  The U.S. Supreme Court helped pave the way for segregation with the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision that approved of the “separate but equal” doctrine.

Bishop Wiley was born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, on March 29, 1825.  He became interested in the Christian ministry as a boy, joining the church at 14 years of age and became active in missionary work.  At 18, he was authorized to preach under ministerial direction.  Due to difficulties with his voice, he studied medicine and upon graduation from medical school became a medical and educational missionary in China.  Wiley was elected bishop in 1864 and organized a Methodist conference in Japan.  Bishop Wiley died on November 22, 1884 in his beloved China.

Wiley College opened its doors just south of Marshall with two frame buildings and an overwhelming desire to succeed in a climate fraught with racism and Jim Crow laws.  So entrenched was their desire to succeed that in 1880, rather than moving Wiley College farther out of town, the founders of the College moved nearer to Marshall on 55 acres of wooded land where the College stands today.  Land was cleared and four additional buildings were constructed as student enrollment soared to 160 students with seven full-time faculty members.  Wiley College had effectively become the first Black college west of the Mississippi River.

Among the visionaries of that era were presidents revered in Wiley College history.  Individuals who persevered in a climate of hatred in the South and in the face of great personal sacrifice were Wiley’s first presidents: Rev. F. C. Moore (1873-1876), Rev. W. H. Davis (1876-1885), Rev. N. D. Clifford (1885-1888), Rev. Dr. George Whitaker (1888-1889), and Rev. Dr. P. A. Pool (1889-1893).  It was their strength of character in the face of hardship and acrimony that forged the early foundations of this bastion of academic excellence.  Their labors were rewarded in 1888 when the first graduate of Wiley University (for so it was called at the time) was awarded the Bachelor of Arts degree.  Mr. H.B. Pemberton would lead the way for generations of Wiley College graduates to come.

Reverend Isaiah B. Scott (1893-1896) was appointed as the sixth president of Wiley College in 1893.  His appointment was significant because he was the first Negro president of Wiley.  The Freedman’s Aid Society departed from its traditional administration of the school and boldly placed Reverend Scott in the lead role for the fledgling school.  Twenty-three years had passed since the founding of Wiley College when Reverend Scott retired in 1896.   Two years later, the General Conference of 1896 elected Dr. Scott to the editorship of the Southwestern Christian Advocate.  A new generation of students then greeted a new president of the College.

Matthew Winfred Dogan, Sr. (1896-1942) was to become the most prolific and the longest-sitting president to grace the halls of Wiley College.  The seventh president took office at the age of 33 and was to become the “backbone and strength of Wiley.”  During his 46-year administration of Wiley College, many changes occurred on the campus and in the United States as a whole.  At a time in history when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League were established to reinvigorate the old abolitionist struggle to achieve complete emancipation and full citizenship for Black Americans, Wiley College was building and expanding.

In 1906, the College boasted of eleven buildings on campus.  The first brick building constructed on campus under the Dogan administration was the central building.  It was built of bricks made on campus and was constructed by students.  Subsequent campus buildings were constructed around this main building and housed programs in mechanics, printing, tailoring, broom making, woodworking and industrial programs.  Among the eleven buildings was the King Industrial Home for Girls bringing the important study of home economics to Wiley.

Dogan’s dream was to expand for the future and indeed Wiley College expanded as building after building was erected for more specialized programs.  However, 1906 also brought tragedy to Wiley College as five buildings were destroyed by fire, including the main central building.  Although the buildings were in ashes, the foundations remained strong and in 1907, buildings of greater magnitude began to take shape on the campus.  Noted philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, made possible the construction of the Carnegie Library that was erected in 1907.

In 1915, floods, cotton crop failures, and a reactivated Ku Klux Klan motivated Southern rural blacks to migrate to the North in search of employment opportunities in the expanding military industry. Within a year and a half, 350,000 African Americans had moved from Southern farms to the factories of Northern cities.  However, Wiley College was continuing to expand.  Coe Hall, named for former teacher, Mrs. Isabel Coe, was built to serve as the men’s dormitory.  Coe’s father had donated the sum of $5,000 to the College.  Thirkield Hall, a magnificent three-story structure built with the grandeur befitting an institution of higher learning, was erected in 1918 and named for Bishop Wilbur P. Thirkield, a close friend of the College and former president of Howard University.

The Daniel Adams Brainard Chapel was erected in 1924 with a capacity for 800 students.  The Chapel was equipped with a pipe organ that was one-of-a-kind among similar sized colleges of the time.  In 1925, Dogan Hall was built to accommodate women in dormitories.  Dogan Hall was a truly lavish residence hall in its day.  The Refectory was also erected during this time period as a dining hall for students and a place for extra-curricular activities.  Truly a pioneer in the educational arena, Wiley College took the leadership role in reorganizing Black schools of higher education and in 1929, renamed itself Wiley College, dropping the use of the word “University”.  It was at this time the high school and trade school were discontinued.  Wiley College was recognized in 1933 as an “A” class college by the Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools of the southern states.  This marked the first time any Black school had ever been rated by the same agency and standards as other universities.  

Wiley College was a leader in planting the seeds of the first social organizations in the Southwest.  These fraternities and sororities nurtured the cohesiveness of Black college students.  The Beta Chapter of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. was formed on the Wiley campus in 1915, the second chapter founded in the United States.  The Theta Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. was formed in 1922 and the Theta Chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. was formed in 1923.  Other social organizations included the Phi Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. in 1924, the Alpha Sigma Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. in 1925, the Alpha Iota Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. in 1930 and the Alpha Chi Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi, Inc. in 1935.

During these years, the automobile was not widely used by many students and their families; thus, the nation’s rail system was the preferred, and sometimes the only means of travel to Wiley.  Coaches with special connections from Dallas, Houston, Shreveport and Beaumont carried students to Marshall, Texas and Wiley College on the “Wiley Express.”

At a time when Jesse Owens was thundering to an unprecedented four gold medals in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Wiley College was introducing football to Black colleges and was a leader in forming the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), still in existence today.   Wiley College won many national championships in football and basketball, having more championship athletic teams than all its opponents of the SWAC combined.

This drive for excellence extended beyond the football fields and the basketball courts and spilled over into the academic arenas with a debating championship in 1935 and notable accomplishments in the field of dramatic competitions.  Wiley College was the first of its kind in the region to adopt an honor roll system for outstanding students.  Wiley College was the leader that other Black colleges and universities eagerly followed.

Music has always played an integral part in Black history and this was also true in the history of Wiley College.  The Wiley College band was a first during this period.  In the 1930’s, Duke” Ellington wrote “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” and George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess debuted before record crowds in New York.  At the same time, the Wiley College music department was making some noise of its own, proudly becoming second to none among similar colleges in the region.  The Wiley Quartet sang for stage and radio during this time period and the Glee Club, band, orchestra and choir were all well equipped with instruments and talent.

The General Education Board of The Methodist Church provided funding in 1935 to refurnish and redecorate the Carnegie Library.  The College accepted the gift and a challenge from the Board to match dollar-for-dollar a $3,000 proposed endowment.  The Endowment Drive was completed in 1938 and the College endowment grew to $6,000 (equivalent to over $200,000 in today’s value).

With the arrival of the 40’s, the era of Dr. Matthew Dogan, the seventh and only president since the turn of the century was coming to a close.  Dogan’s tenure had been marked with struggles and successes, expansion and growth.  It was a very different student that walked the halls of Wiley College in the 1940’s.  Students appeared younger and bolder.  Styles and fashions took on a new look.  Soon, the world would change once again with the coming of war to the United States.  A new day was on the horizon and in 1942, President Dogan retired as the president of Wiley College.

World War II began for the United States on December 7, 1941, with the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.  As President Franklin Roosevelt was addressing Congress on the proposition of war, Wiley College President, Dr. Matthew Dogan, was preparing to relinquish the reins of authority to Dr. E. C. McLeod, Wiley’s eighth president (1942-1948).  While college enrollment took a back seat to the draft, Dr. McLeod never backed down from the vision established by the previous administration to build and expand “Dear Wiley”, thus, a five-year building plan was unveiled.

Wiley served the defense effort well with the establishment of the Wiley College Committee on Community Service and National Defense.  The Committee coordinated its efforts with the country’s national defense resources through an expansion of its summer program.  Many Wileyites seized this opportunity and trained for community health improvement with the aid of this national program.

Addressing the demands of the market, homemaking education was added to the curriculum and a new facility complete with lecture rooms, laboratories and mock dining and lodging facilities was established in 1942.  A new athletic stadium was constructed and improvements were made to the athletic fields.  McLeod Hall was constructed as a men’s residence hall to accommodate the veterans returning from the war.  Many young men took advantage of the educational opportunities afforded them through their G.I. Benefits package.  This was the most expansive record of enrollment in Wiley College history.

During McLeod’s administration, the College joined the United Negro College Fund in 1944 as a charter member.  This brought new resources to the College for expanding programs and building projects.  Wiley College enjoys the distinction of having won the title of “Miss UNCF” for three consecutive terms being the only college of the era to receive this stellar national honor.

With the retirement of Dr. McLeod in 1948, Wiley College changed leadership.  The ninth president of Wiley College was Dr. Julius S. Scott, Sr. (1948-1958).  He had worked at the College in various capacities over the years and brought a true “Wiley Spirit” to the presidency.  Under his leadership, the Alumni Gymnasium was completed.  The new gym was a project initiated by the Wiley College National Alumni Association and was funded through gifts from alumni and grants from the federal government.  The gymnasium was more than a new structure on campus.  It was a monument to the struggles and the successes of its former students and graduates of the College.   

Wiley College students were getting their first taste of rock-n-roll in 1954 listening to the sounds of recording artists like Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Little Richard.  During this period, Smith-Nooks Hall of Music was built and dedicated and shortly thereafter, in 1958, Dr. Scott retired from the presidency.

Dr. Thomas Winston Cole, Sr. (1958-1971) was selected as the tenth president to lead Wiley College in 1958.  He was a 1934 graduate of Wiley College and the first layman to hold the position.  His visionary goal was to build on the great traditions established by his predecessors.  In 1960, Wiley College was admitted to full membership in the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools (SACS).  In addition, a new building program was established including a complete renovation of the Refectory together with its transformation into a modernized dining facility.  Dr. Cole was instrumental in refurbishing and remodeling many facilities on campus including the Aaron Baker Science Building, the T.W. Cole Library, and the Fred T. Long Student Union Building.  He had the streets paved, new sidewalks installed and created new parking facilities for students, faculty and staff.  It was also during this period that the annex for Dogan Hall was completed to house the senior females on campus.  Dr. Cole served Wiley College well from 1958-1971.  

The eleventh president of Wiley College was also an alumnus of the College, Dr. Robert E. Hayes, Sr. (1971-1986). His administration continued to advance the College.  During his presidency, the College experienced continued growth and development.  A new men’s dormitory was constructed to accommodate an increasing enrollment.  The fledgling KBWC, Wiley College radio station, received licensing approval by the Federal Communications Commission.  The A Cappella Choir resumed its annual spring concert tour of the mid-west and the number of faculty members holding earned doctorate degrees increased to 41 percent.  Dr. Hayes was also instrumental in raising over a million dollars through speaking engagements and gifts from individuals. Dr. Hayes served his alma mater from 1971 until his retirement in June of 1986.  Between 1986 and 1987, Dr. E.W. Rand, and Dr. David R. Houston served successively as interim presidents of the College.

The Wiley College Board of Trustees elected Dr. David L. Beckley (1987-1993) as the twelfth president of the institution in 1987.  Under his leadership, the College improved its fiscal management practices, retired outstanding federal bonds on several campus buildings and facilities, retired federal debts and loans, increased the endowment fund and increased the number of faculty members holding terminal degrees.  Also during the Beckley administration, the College was reorganized into five academic divisions: Basic Studies; Business and Social Sciences; Education and Physical Education; Humanities and Natural Sciences and Mathematics.  These programs helped prepare students for careers in their major discipline as well as making available to them the opportunity to pursue graduate work.

Dr. Lamore J. Carter (1993-1996) was named thirteenth president of Wiley College by the Board of Trustees in 1993. Under his administration, significant accomplishments included the reaffirmation of accreditation by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). The renovation of significant portions of the Wiley-Pemberton Complex was completed through acquisition of several grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  Dr. Carter continued the initiative to increase the number of Ph.D.s on the faculty and brought about outstanding improvements in the educational programs via a Fulbright Faculty Seminar in Thailand in 1994.  

In 1996, Dr. Julius S. Scott, Jr. (1996-1998), a 1945 graduate of Wiley College, became the fourteenth president and chief executive officer of the institution. Dr. Scott’s administration was marked by focused planning, fiscal stability and a “seize the day” philosophical ideal.  He is credited with enhancing the academic experiences of students, increasing enrollment, improving the living and learning facilities, and improving the overall academic standards of the institution.

Dr. Ronald L. Swain (1998-2000) became Wiley’s fifteenth president in 1998. Under his leadership, a College-wide strategic planning initiative was launched. Equally important, the College increased its technological capabilities by extending computer usage throughout the campus, providing laptop computers to each student.  Improvements to the information systems were initiated that eventually led to increased network, Internet and computing capabilities and resources for the library.    

In 2000, Dr. Haywood L. Strickland (2000-2017)  was named the sixteenth president. His initial administrative theme was “Achieving Excellence Through Pride and Performance.”  During his first year of service, he exemplified this theme in achievements by beginning the construction of the $2.4 million Julius S. Scott, Sr. Chapel on September 11, 2001, a day that will be etched in the memories of all Americans.  As the New York “twin towers” were falling, the Julius S. Scott, Sr. Chapel was rising. This edifice is now a center for worship and a gathering place for educational and spiritual enrichment for the Wiley College family and will be for generations to come.  Dr. Strickland has been responsible for renovating and refurbishing every campus facility; spearheading the expansion of the physical plant to include a fourth residence hall–the J. Jack Ingram Residence Hall; substantially improving science laboratory facilities and securing record amounts in private gifts, as well as increased external funding for sponsored programs.  Dr. Strickland is committed to the utilization of innovative techniques and strategic planning in all administrative processes.  He is equally committed to modern pedagogy, the application of cutting-edge technology, and the involvement of the College in service to the community.   The 16th president of the College is dedicated to student-centered programs and a customer-focused approach.  Under Dr. Strickland’s administration, the College had its accreditation re-affirmed to the year 2013. The College garnered rare, international visibility on December 25, 2007 with the release of the movie, The Great Debaters, directed by Mr. Denzel Washington and produced by HARPO Productions and the Weinstein Company.  This major motion picture captured the fame and notoriety of Professor Melvin B. Tolson and the intellectual legacy of four former students — Hobart Jarrett, Henry Heights, James Farmer, Jr. and Henrietta Bell (Wells). It was their 1935 victory over that year’s National Champions that was the subject of the movie, The Great Debaters, which also won national acclaim. Under President Strickland’s leadership, the College received a one million dollar gift from Mr. Denzel Washington to revive the school’s debate team which was subsequently named in honor of both Professor Tolson and Mr. Denzel Washington.

The College is currently organized into four degree granting divisions:  the Division of Sciences, the Division of Education, the Division of Business and Technology, the Division of Social Sciences and Humanities, and one service unit, the Division of General Education and Special Studies.  The latter division, although not degree granting, is responsible for the College’s general education and developmental education programs, and provides initial support and advisement to freshmen and transfer students.  

There is an unyielding conviction among the faculty and administration today that learning occurs best in an environment that is academically challenging and supportive, that embraces the principles of academic freedom, and shared governance.  Overall, Wiley College remains a viable force in the academic community.   The institution continues to be a leader in innovation.  It was the first “Thinkpad College” west of the Mississippi River.  This initiative afforded all students the opportunity to use a laptop in their daily class work.  This type of technologically advanced classroom allows students to become more proficient in the use of technology by obtaining class assignments, tests, and research projects via the Internet on a “24/7” basis.  Each residence hall is equipped with Internet capabilities for students to perform extensive research from the comfort of their rooms. 

For the last 137 years, Wiley has offered educational opportunities to the citizens of Texas, the nation and the world.  The Wiley College spirit remains vibrant in the face of remarkable social change, global terrorism, economic strife and adversity.  The beacon light that is Wiley College will shine forth unsullied for generations to come.  The insightful vision of years past that made Wiley College a preeminent black college in the south is alive and well.