The calendar for February has been full at Wiley College for the celebration of Black History Month. Events included film screenings, poetry nights, trivia competitions, social media campaigns, inspirational walks and special speakers.
A kick-off, hosted by the campus chapel, featured prayer and song and was live streamed. The month also featured an awards ceremony for area educators, as well as an archival display of alumni in the campus library and student union. Each event honored this year’s theme, “Inspiring Health through Knowledge, History and Legacy.”
President and CEO Dr. Herman J. Felton, Jr. explained that planning for the month’s activities began in the summer. “We wanted to make sure we do a little more than we normally do,” he said.
A committee comprised of students, faculty and administrators wove together dynamic speakers and events, all selected to inspire students and foster fellowship on campus. “There was literally something for everyone,” Felton said.
Wiley College’s history is inspirational. The university traces its roots to 1873, only eight years after the Civil War, when the Freedman’s Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church founded Wiley College near Marshall, Texas.
Felton explained that white Texans wanted to provide Black youth the opportunity to pursue higher learning. “That is the beauty of our story,” Felton said. “It’s a reflection of diversity of thought, more than what anyone would have believed was going on at that time.”
The university was named after Bishop Isaac William Wiley and founded only shortly after African-American males were given the right to vote in 1870, and years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of “separate but equal” in 1896.
When Wiley College opened, the school consisted of two buildings, and in 1880, founders moved the campus to its current site, on 55 acres. Wiley College became the first Black college west of the Mississippi River.
Visionaries led the school through challenging times and major accomplishments. 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 been rated by the same agency and standards as other universities.
The institution continues to be a leader in education and innovation. “The continuum from the first president to the 17th – that’s me – has been an unadulterated, unabashed pride,” Felton said.
When he walks on campus, he is acutely aware of the courage and foresight of the college’s leaders. “You can feel it on this campus,” he said. “There is a hallowedness, a sacredness. It’s just something special.”
In the midst of the pandemic, Felton found himself pondering how the college was carrying forward its 149-year legacy. The Socrates quote, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” became a guiding principle.
“It set us on a journey, really examining whether we really care about the entire student,” he said.
This year’s Black History Month theme, “Inspiring Health through Knowledge, History and Legacy,” reflects a renewed commitment to a holistic approach to both the students and the administration.
A focus on health also seemed timely with COVID-19. “We’re really creating a culture where students are cognizant of their predisposed conditions, as well as obstacles they face,” Felton said. “We want our college family to be well aware of how important it is to be healthy.”
And health includes spiritual and emotional well-being, he added. In the midst of the pandemic, George Floyd’s murder raised concerns about the persistence of racism. At the same time, COVID highlighted inequities in health care.
Students faced anxiety on many levels and for a variety of reasons. In response, in October 2021, Wiley College implemented a “Sacred Pause,” which Felton described as a chance for the Wiley family to “rest, reflect and renew.”
Dr. Herman J. Felton, Jr. President and CEO, Wiley College
“We were tired,” he explained. “It’s hard to grasp a global pandemic, even more so to grasp the blatant disregard for our respect for each other as humans.”
The week-long Sacred Pause was a time to think, to process the events and to grieve. It was also an opportunity for self-care and outreach.
Felton received emails from students who used the time to volunteer or to reconnect with their families. “It was amazing,” he said. “We are now going to incorporate a Sacred Pause every year.”
The week also reinforced the college’s commitment to wellbeing, health and wellness of students and staff, as well as their spiritual health, Felton said. “We don’t have control over the times we live in,” he added. “But we do have control over how we respond. And we have to move away from this ideal that hope is not an option.”
Hope is an active term, Felton explained. “There has to be action,” he said. “Hope is really a combination of belief and doing the absolute best you can.”
Felton quoted Herman Mellville’s “Moby Dick,” “Cast down your bucket where you are.” The line was referenced also by Booker T. Washington in a speech in 1895 about using the resources one has to make the best of a situation.
“If you put down those burdens and pick up tools of hope, tools of promise and start doing the work, the burden can become something else entirely,” Felton said.
The college’s affiliation with the UMC is essential, he explained.
“We have programs to bolster our faith,” he said. “It’s no coincidence that you see the Wiley W and the cross all over campus. We’re intentional about uplifting that relationship. It signifies our belief in God and how God would have us treat our fellow man.”
He pointed to Luke 9:23: “Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
“That’s radical, to deny yourself, to take up His cross daily,” Felton said. “We are imperfect people trying to do His will and follow His word. That’s why grace was invented.”