On a hot, humid July evening in 1915, Joseph L. Wiley, longtime principal of a private school on the outskirts of Ocala, drove to the Temple Theatre to see a movie. His car was found along West Broadway the next day, but Wiley was not. He had vanished.
Some speculated that the light-skinned, straight-haired black man ran away to pass as a white man. But his affairs at home were in order, and no money had been withdrawn from his bank account. Many of Marion County’s black residents believed he had been murdered.
In addition to being an educator, Wiley worked as farm supervisor, lawyer and banker. As principal of Fessenden Academy, a sprawling 150-acre campus managed by the American Missionary Association (AMA), he was dictatorial with his staff but a maverick when it came to taking orders from his white supervisors headquartered in New York. He dared to teach his black students to dream of an America where “every man and every woman would be accorded every right” in a state that had more lynchings per capita than any in the South.
Little is known about Wiley’s life or career at Fessenden Academy; a fire destroyed most of the school’s records in 1919. What is retold here comes from accounts of locals and historical records from the AMA pieced together by Joe M. Richardson, a former historian at Florida State University, as well as from the 1900-01 school handbook.
Born in Woodbury, Tenn., and described by AMA officials as “Caucasian” in appearance, Wiley enrolled in Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville whose alumni already included W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells and Wiley’s future wife, Josephine Hobbs.
In his senior year in 1895, Wiley served as editor-in-chief of the school paper, the Fisk Herald, where he editorialized praise for Booker T. Washington’s call for more colleges and college training for black students as well as vocational training.
Wiley graduated Fisk with a degree in Classics and announced in the Herald that he would spend a year “teaching and rusticating in the rock-ribbed hills and lovely valleys of Cannon County.” He kept busy as a teacher but used his leisure time to study law, passing the Tennessee bar exam in 1896. He spent two years practicing law before deciding his life would be better spent as a “Christian teacher.”
When he arrived on the Fessenden Academy campus in the fall of 1898, the school was known as Union Academy. Union Academy had launched in 1868 in a “tumbledown cabin” barely 16-feet-by-16-feet — only a little larger than the recommended size for a modern-day horse stall — that by 1890 was crammed with 75 students. That year, a wealthy Bostonian, Ferdinand S. Fessenden, took pity on the poor school and provided funds to construct a new 2,500-square-foot, two-story schoolhouse that opened in 1891. While Fessenden’s financial support turned the school around, Wiley’s arrival in 1898 ushered in a golden age for the school, which was renamed in 1900 to honor its benefactor.
According to historian Richardson, the AMA’s financial struggles had forced the organization to shutter schools for black students across the country. Known for keeping principals on a tight leash, the AMA required school leaders to follow the direct orders of their supervisors in New York and to ask permission for all expenditures. But with its focus trained on larger, urban schools, it left the tiny rural school in far-off Florida to its own devices. As long as Wiley stayed within his meager budget, he had free reign to manage the school as he wished.
Within two years Wiley, with the help of his wife, who was known as a brisk, competent and very good teacher, had increased the staff to four teachers who were instructing 238 students.
In 1902, Fessenden began operating an industrial department in agriculture, carpentry and sewing with a $600 gift from the John F. Slater Fund. Its students helped construct additional campus buildings and grew most of the food served in the dining hall.
Meanwhile, the school added ninth and 10th grades, making Fessenden the only secondary school for black students in the region. Five black women were the first to complete 10th grade, passed the Florida teacher’s exam and in 1903 joined the ranks of the county’s teaching corps.
William N. Sheats, known as the father of Florida’s public-school system, the state’s first elected public school superintendent and author of Florida’s constitutional ban on racial integration in education, heaped enough praise on Fessenden to pave the way for state appropriations from 1904 to 1908.
As the student census grew, Wiley added men’s and women’s dormitories and expanded the campus with the addition of 37 acres, all without financial assistance from the AMA. He used a $6,500 grant from Andrew Carnegie and $1,500 in additional gifts to build a library, dining hall and classrooms for domestic science courses. When he was unable to find donor support, he financed improvements himself regardless of whether the AMA could reimburse him.
By 1910, the school had 300 students, 50 of whom lived on campus.
Academics at Fessenden Academy became highly respected under Wiley’s watch. Marion County School Board members visited in 1908, finding the school in “most excellent condition and doing splendid work,” praising it as “the best colored school” in the state. When industrial students displayed their work at the county fair in 1914, the Ocala Star Banner described it as “finished work that carpenters, blacksmiths, seamstresses and cooks recognize as the standard of perfection.”
But Wiley didn’t let Fessenden rest on its industrial school’s laurels; he pushed students to excel in reading, Latin, mathematics and chemistry, too.
He refused when Superintendent Sheats asked him to substitute industrial classes for Latin, because in Sheats’ words, “the knowledge of how to do something would be worth more to the colored race just now than a smattering” of Latin. Wiley believed, as did the AMA, that the aim of education was “to make a carpenter a man, not simply make a man a carpenter.”
Wiley also insisted that his students, despite the challenges rural poverty imposed, learn tidiness, politeness and thoughtfulness. He believed, according to Richardson, that, teaching geometry, chemistry, or languages was futile if students were untrained in “Christian character,” good manners and morals.
Wiley also taught students patriotism and encouraged them to consider they were worth more as citizens than as slaves. In his view, the United States offered a “glorious opportunity to teach the world a lesson in brotherhood.” He told his students to “live and achieve,” in order to make the country a better place and to prove it could one day become a haven for the oppressed.
Wiley did have his faults. His was a dictatorial leader. He cut Christmas vacation for his staff to three days. Teachers who failed to meet his exact standards were fired on the spot.
By 1908, he began crossing swords with his new supervisor, Paul Douglass. Though Douglass considered Wiley an excellent principal, he determined he was “incorrigible” and requested his resignation in 1913. True to form, Wiley refused, and continued to manage the school until he disappeared in the summer of 1915.
The loss of Wiley was a devastating blow to Fessenden and its students. The white leaders who managed the local school board and the state county board withdrew their support and the school floundered for a time.
Joseph L. Wiley led Fessenden Academy through 17 years of explosive growth and high academic achievement at a time when whites expected black students to become nothing but laborers. During that time, more than 1,000 students graduated knowing their self-worth as citizens and realizing they were educated men and women worthy of dignity and respect.
Wiley’s dream lives on at Fessenden, which remains open as an integrated public elementary school.
Richardson, Joe M. “Joseph L. Wiley: A Black Florida Educator.” The Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. 71, No. 4, April 1993.
Richardson, Joe M., and Maxine D. Jones, “Education for Liberation: The American Missionary Association and African Americans, 1890 to the Civil Rights Movement.” The University of Alabama Press, 2009.