Henrietta Bell Wells, a retired social worker living in Houston, was the Wiley College debate team’s only female member.



One of the real students was from Houston

December 22, 2007

MARSHALL — Jurnee Smollett, a 21-year-old actress with Louisiana roots, had never heard of Wiley College when she got the script last year for the movie that just might change her life.She knew nothing of Wiley’s greatest moment, the day in 1935 when a debate team from the struggling black school beat the defending national champions from the University of Southern California in a nationally broadcast debate.”I was ashamed that I didn’t know that story,” she said recently while promoting the film, The Great Debaters, in Dallas. “I didn’t know anyone who did know the story. Why didn’t I know?”Smollett shouldn’t feel bad. Few Texans know it, either.”There are people who live here in Marshall who don’t know the story,” said Haywood L. Strickland, the president of the tiny school.With the release Tuesday of The Great Debaters, that is about to change. The movie, which stars Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker, has been nominated for a Golden Globe award for best drama.With its inspirational message and strong support from Oprah Winfrey, who produced it, it has a good chance of finding an audience.If so, its success would echo the surprise triumph of the 1935 debate team.Strickland is hoping it also heralds the rebirth of the Methodist Church-affiliated college, which has faced decades of dwindling enrollment and finances.”It’s the Goliath and David story in a different kind of setting,” Strickland said. He was describing the appeal of the movie, but he could’ve been talking about Wiley College.The school, a collection of red-brick buildings in Marshall, 150 miles east of Dallas near the Louisiana border, began its decline less than a decade after its debate team’s greatest success.Melvin B. Tolson, the brilliant teacher that Washington portrays, resigned in 1947 to teach at Langston University in Oklahoma.The football program collapsed in the 1960s. The Methodist Church considered closing the school.One of the Wiley students Tolson taught and inspired was Heman Sweat, who would go on to win a lawsuit in 1950 that forced the University of Texas law school to admit African-Americans. Ironically, integration hurt schools such as Wiley as many of the best students and teachers migrated to better-funded white schools.

Wiley officials hope the increased visibility the movie brings will help fundraising and recruitment, but Strickland said the school actually began rebounding several years ago because of renewed emphasis on fundraising and better fiscal management.

“We’re very fortunate that the movie happens to be coming out at a very critical juncture for us,” he said.

For the first time in years, Wiley will end 2007 in the black. Enrollment has increased to 926 today from 520 in 2000 — the highest it has been in decades.

A sign on the campus’ main street boasts: “Home of the Great Debaters.” Similar words greet callers to the school, even though the school hasn’t had a debate program since the 1940s.

Hollywood comes calling

When Washington and three young actors from the movie came to town to host premiere screenings Dec. 13, the actor-director said he wanted to make the boast true again.”We’ll try to help the school and get the debate team back on its feet,” he told journalists. “It seems like the right thing to do.”

The next day, Strickland divulged that the actor had pledged $1 million but asked him to delay announcing it.

Attention drawn to the school because of the movie also was key to Wal-Mart pledging $100,000 for a scholarship fund and a Dallas businessman promising $300,000.

The movie’s local premiere was the biggest event most people here could recall. Politicians and dignitaries from surrounding counties attended a cocktail reception for Washington, who also is the director. People arrived more than an hour early to catch a glimpse of the actor and filmmaker at the town’s only movie theater, where The Great Debaters showed on four screens.

Screams erupted in waves as the purple Wiley College cap Washington wore bobbed into view as he slowly made his way down the red carpet.

“He’s so cute,” one woman gushed, even before she’d had a chance to see him.

The movie fictionalizes the story somewhat. The school defeats Harvard in the movie, for one thing. Also, of the three main debaters, only one represents a real person.

Denzel Whitaker, a 17-year-old actor whose parents named him after Washington, portrays James Farmer Jr., a Wiley debater who went on to found the Congress of Racial Equality, a prominent civil rights organization.

Actors trained at TSU

The other two debaters are fictionalized though they each are largely based on a single person.Smollett, for example, portrays a character named Samantha Booke, but she paid several visits to Houston to get to know Henrietta Bell Wells, a retired 95-year-old social worker who was the debate team’s only female member.

“I visited her, I stayed with her, I sang in her church choir,” Smollett said of Wells.

She recalled Wells stressing how important education was to her as a young woman. “She inspired me greatly,” Smollett said.

Washington also brought the young actors to Houston to train with Texas Southern University’s debate team in a two-day debate camp.

“The first day was training, and then on the second day we debated against TSU’s freshman debate team,” said Nate Parker, who portrays the third debater.

Smollett said of Dr. Thomas F. Freeman, TSU’s head debate coach who organized the program in 1949: “He’s kind of their own Melvin Tolson.”

A TSU spokeswoman pointed out that while the movie’s Harvard debate was fictionalized, “the TSU debate team actually did beat Harvard in 1956 with a team that included the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan.”



The team’s sole woman and last survivor grew up in the Fourth Ward

December 22, 2007

The Great Debaters, opening in theaters on Christmas Day, tells the story of the triumph of underdogs. It is also Henrietta Bell Wells’ story.Born in Houston’s Fourth Ward on the banks of Buffalo Bayou and raised by a struggling single mother from the West Indies, Wells became the only female member of the 1930 debate team from Wiley College who participated in the first collegiate interracial debate in the United States. She is the last surviving member of the 1930s team coached by Melvin B. Tolson.But for Wells, her involvement in the real life events that inspired the movie that stars Denzel Washington was just about living.”I was just lucky, that’s what I think,” the 95-year-old Wells said at the Houston facility where she now lives. “I just thought I was living my life. I don’t think we thought we were doing any great job. We were in the debate team for fun, just doing our best.”Wells met Tolson, who would later become a role model throughout her college career, in freshman English.

Hectic balancing act

He talked her into trying out for the debate team. Reluctant, she took the stage, stood behind the podium and read for him. Satisfied with her reading, Tolson put her on the team.”I told him I don’t know anything about debating and I don’t have any money to take off from class to be on the debate team,” Wells said. “I was the only girl, and I was the only freshman. They (the boys) didn’t seem to mind me.”

The schedule was hectic. She had to make night practices in addition to attending her day classes, all while working three jobs on campus. She worked at the Wildcat Inn, a student hangout, and did housekeeping in the dorm.

Life for a young black woman during the Jim Crow era presented Wells plenty of challenges.

She remembers her home being searched during the Camp Logan Riots of 1918, being unable to try on clothes in stores and failing a voter registration test in Louisiana.

The family didn’t have much money, but Wells was always a good student, finishing as valedictorian at Phyllis Wheatley High School. Her acumen for learning earned a scholarship to attend Wiley. Even with the scholarship, she had to work for her upkeep. During her time on the debate team, her friends covered her shifts while she traveled with the team. Her need to work eventually led Wells to leave the team.

Still a debater

Friends say that Wells, however, maintained that debating spirit.”If you listen to her, you can hear the debater,” said Glenice Como, a lay minister at St. James Episcopal Church where Wells is a member. “She will hold her ground with you. If she thinks she hasn’t made her point, she’ll do her research.”

There are those who won’t forget what Wells and others from the era contributed to breaking down barriers for black debaters.

Texas Southern University debate coach Thomas F. Freeman called Tolson’s decision to include a woman on his team courageous during a time when a woman’s role was limited. Barbara Jordan was the first woman to travel with the TSU team in 1954. Freeman recalled a time when TSU debaters were not allowed to stay in certain hotels or eat in restaurants when traveling to compete.

“Someone has to be courageous enough to become the first,” said Freeman. “I hope they (students) get a sense of history from it and realization of the problems faced by young people who wanted to forge ahead.”

Wells recalled that the team went up against law students from the University of Michigan in Chicago during that interracial debate. She once wrote of that experience: “It was a non-decision debate, but we felt at the time that it was a giant step toward desegregation.”

She recalled that the judge was quoted in a newspaper as having said that the two teams were evenly matched, an idea she scoffs at.

“You’re talking about a debate team where one member was a freshman. They were all graduate law students. That was a whole lot we were going up against,” she said.

Wells recalled that before the match, Tolson gave her pointers on how to punch up her speech. “He said, ‘You’ve got to put something in there to wake the people up,’ ” she recalled.

The movie has sparked new interest in Wiley College, which has a student enrollment of 926. There is even discussion about revitalizing debating that tapered off after Tolson left the university.

Humbled by the attention

While friends were happy about the film being made, some were disappointed that the female character did not use Wells’ name.Despite this, they knew Wells’ contribution.

“It makes me feel very proud,” said J. Marie McCleary, who was also a student assistant for Tolson. “She wasn’t at all intimidated by working with young men. She just stood out. She spoke very well.”

As for Wells, who was unable to attend the recent screening at Wiley, she can now say that she’s met Denzel Washington. Jurnee Smollett, the young actress who plays the female debater in the film, has come to Houston several times to visit her.

Wells has had the film privately screened for her in her room and gets requests for interviews.

When the movie opens in theaters Tuesday, she will spend it quietly with friends and family in her room. Como said they plan to fill her room with balloons.

Wells is humbled by the attention.

“I hope I live up to the ideals in it,” she said. “The movie is supposed to inspire young people to want to go to college, to try hard, to know it’s not all easy but there’s so much you gain from it.”

(Article courtesy of the Houston Chronicle)



Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Associated Press  MARSHALL, Texas – Oscar winner Denzel Washington is donating $1 million to Wiley College to reestablish its famed debate team.   

School officials Tuesday announced the gift by Washington, who last week was in Marshall to screen The Great Debaters.

His film about the school’s 1930s debate team has been nominated for a Golden Globe as best drama.

Washington stars as educator and poet Melvin Tolson, who led the all-black college’s elite debate team. He also directed the movie.

Washington, during last Thursday’s appearance, vowed to help the college and get the debate team going again.

Washington won Academy Awards for Glory and Training Day.




From The Eloquent Woman:


Official “The Great Debaters” Website



Filed under Uncategorized


  1. Pingback: Trends Update! » wiley college

  2. Pingback: The Great Debaters — A Great Film « Problem Chylde: Learning in Transition


    I went with a friend last night to see the Debaters..the movie was interesting but It would have been more so had I known that it was based on a true story..well true to a point..although why at the end did they list that Farmer did such and such which was true….and say that Samantha Booke became a lawyer (which the character had stated) and that she was on the Freedom Ride to Alabama..also not true evidently…Based on the partly fictionalized portions..then I agree that Henrietta Bell Well’s name should have been that would have been the “right” thing to do…

    • Mark Rego-Monteiro

      Agreed. Writing now 9 years later, and getting clear about all these historical details, it is a bit shocking to have researched on wikipedia alone and found that in fact Samantha Booke did not exist. The statements that she did anything should have reverted to the truth, that Booke really was HenriettaBellWell who became a social worker. That kind of fictionalizing is counterproductive to the claim of “based on a true story.”

  4. Francis Amede, MD

    I was inspired and was deeply moved by their courage in the face of unimaginable tyranny in the South. If we take the time to teach our children the “values “of life, we would reinforce a proclivity toward a life filled with passion for the things that really matter.
    I have also found out that Ms Wells is still alive and I will go to see and talk with her.

  5. Mathias

    Thanks for your marvelous posting! I definitely enjoyed
    reading it, you are a great author. I will certainly bookmark your
    blog and will come back later. I want to encourage you to continue your great job.

  6. girlfriend

    As usual you’ve delivered with really exciting information and I have as of now added this specific web page as one I am going to pay attention to : )

  7. Timothy Yarbah

    Thanks to the organizer, producer, the great debaters and all those who worked to make this film a success.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s