Wiley College, established in 1873 in Marshall, Texas, by the Freedmen’s Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, is the oldest African-American institute of higher education west of the Mississippi River. The college was originally located south of Marshall where the Wiley College Cemetery remains, but moved to a seventy-acre plot in downtown Marshall in 1880. It was chartered in 1882 and at the time served as a high school as well as a college. In 1888 Henry B. Pemberton was awarded a B.A. degree as the first college graduate. The first president was F.C. Moore, and for the institution’s first twenty years the president and all the faculty and staff, who were considered missionaries, were White. The all-White policy changed in 1893 when Isaiah B. Scott was named the institution’s first African-American president. In 1896 he became editor of the Southwest Christian Advocate, and Matthew Dogan took his place. He served forty-six years and finally retired in 1942.
A fire in 1906 destroyed five of the eleven buildings on campus, but they were rebuilt and the president’s home was constructed by 1907 when Dogan managed to secure funds from the Carnegie Foundation with no matching grant as was normally required for a library. It and the president’s home were built by students. Always open to the entire community, the Carnegie was the only public library in Marshall until 1974.
Great changes were made in 1929. The high school and all industrial classes were dropped, and in 1933 Wiley became the first historically-Black college in Texas to receive an “A” rating from the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, although the all-White SACS made it clear that Wiley should not consider itself a member.
Under the leadership of English professor, poet, playwright, and debate coach Melvin B. Tolson, Wiley College’s debate team became legendary. It won virtually every debate among historically-Black colleges and became the first to debate a White college when it took on and defeated Oklahoma City College in 1932. The team’s crowning achievement came in 1935 when it defeated that year’s national champions, the University of Southern California. The saga was the subject of a motion picture, The Great Debaters (2007) directed by Denzel Washington who also played the role of Tolson. The film had a tremendous effect on Wiley, essentially doubling the enrollment and re-establishing an award-winning debate team—the result of a $1 million donation by Washington.
Wiley had numerous well-known faculty members, in addition to Tolson. These included H. B. Pemberton, mathematics; James Leonard Farmer, Sr., religion; Lucille Dogan Teycer, music; and Oliver Cromwell Cox and Andrew Polk Watson, sociology.
Under the leadership of coach Fred “Pop” Long, Wiley College football and basketball teams were many times champions in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), which was founded in part by Long in the 1920s. He organized the State Fair Classic football game in the Cotton Bowl during “Negro Day” at the Texas State Fair in 1925. From 1925 to 1929 Wiley played Oklahoma’s Langston University in the State Fair Classic, and from 1930 to 1948 the opponent was Prairie View A&M University.
Among Wiley’s outstanding alumni were civil rights leaders Lawrence A. Nixon, James L. Farmer Jr., Heman Sweatt, and Fred Lewis. Leaders in the field of education included Hobart Jarrett and Henrietta Bell Wells. Three Wiley graduates—Thomas Winston Cole, Sr.; Robert E. Hayes, Sr.; and Julius Scott, Jr.—became Wiley College presidents, and Mack Hopkins was a Tuskegee Airman. H. B. Pemberton’s son Charles Pemberton was one of Houston’s outstanding physicians.
Wiley and Bishop College students participated in the largest sit-in in Texas in March and April of 1960. Although it only lasted four days, the publicity was great enough to cause the Texas State Senate Permanent Investigating Committee to send a representative to Marshall to look for Communist influence. None was found, and all charges against the student marchers were dismissed.
Wiley College is affiliated with the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools (SACS), United Negro College Fund (UNCF), Accredited College for Business School Programs (ACBSP), and the College of the United Methodist Church (CUMC). There are three degree-granting divisions— arts and sciences, education, and business and technology. Additionally, a division of general studies does not grant degrees.
In 2013 the student population was 1326 and the campus included seventeen buildings. Haywood Strickland, Wiley’s sixteenth president, took office in 2000.