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.