Home > Our World > News > News Archives by Date > News Archive 2007 > October 2007 > News - October 2007
Movie to feature Wiley College historic debate team

Melvin B. Tolson (center) led the Wiley College debate team to a U.S. championship in 1935 with a win over Harvard University.
Melvin B. Tolson (center) led the Wiley College debate team to U.S. prominence in 1935.  The story is depicted in the movie "The Great Debaters," scheduled for release Dec. 25.
UMNS photos courtesy of Wiley College.

A UMNS Report
By Linda Green*
Oct. 19, 2007

It is not every day that Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey do a movie together about a historically black college with fewer than 1,000 students.

But that’s what happened when the pair learned about a David and Goliath matchup in which Wiley College's 1935 debate team won a national championship against perennial oratorical powerhouses.

 United Methodist-related Wiley College is a historically black college in Marshall, Texas.
United Methodist-related Wiley College is a historically black school in Texas.

In 2004, the United Methodist-related college in Marshall, Texas, began to receive inquiries from Hollywood about Melvin B. Tolson, leader of Wiley's first debate team.

"We started getting calls and researching ourselves for them," said Veronica Clark, Wiley's director of public relations.

The Wiley staff learned that over a 15-year period, Tolson’s teams lost only one of 75 debates. The Wiley Forensic Society competed against historically black colleges, but earned national attention with its debates against the University of Southern California and Harvard University.

"After we did our research, it was submitted to Mr. Washington and the production company, and from there a script was developed," said Clark.

The Great Debaters

Scheduled for release Dec. 25, "The Great Debaters" is being produced by Winfrey's Harpo Productions. Washington is both director and star. Filming began in early 2006 and wrapped over the summer. Most of the scenes were filmed in Louisiana with brief scenes on the Wiley campus and at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

"This is exciting. It just doesn’t get any better than this. Not to mention that a great story is being told …"
–Veronica Clark, Wiley College

"Everyone is extremely excited," Clark said. "It is not everyday that Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey want to do a movie about a college, especially one about a college our size." The liberal arts college has 926 students enrolled.

"As soon as we learned of the movie at Wiley, the alumni have just been bombarding the college with telephone calls," Clark said. "This is exciting. It just doesn’t get any better than this. Not to mention that a great story is being told about newbies coming onto the debate scene and doing so well."

The Marshall community also was excited about Washington’s arrival. "He came to campus in sweatpants and a baseball cap," said Clark. "He was here to work (and) he was very approachable."

Since racial diversity was needed in the film, students and community members came out in droves. Other actors in the film include Forest Whitaker, Columbus Short, Jermaine Williams, J.D. Evermore, John Heard, Kimberly Elise, Nate Parker, Justice Leak, Jurnee Smollett and Denzel Whitaker.

The story of Melvin Tolson

Tolson was born in 1898 in Moberly, Mo., to a Methodist Episcopal pastor and his wife. His father served churches in Missouri and Iowa.

A graduate of historically black Lincoln (Pa.) University, Tolson was hired by Wiley College in 1924 to teach English and speech. He also coached junior varsity football, directed the theater club and organized the Wiley Forensic Society.


A monument to Tolson and his achievement stands on the campus.
A monument to Tolson and his achievement stands on the campus.

Tolson was a mentor and teacher to civil rights activist James Farmer Jr. and Herman Sweat, an African American who was refused admission into the University of Texas Law School. Action by the law school resulted in a Supreme Court decision that challenged the "separate but equal" doctrine of racial segregation, a policy established by the 1896 case of Plessey vs. Ferguson.

He left Wiley in 1947 to teach at historically black Langston (Okla.) University. That same year, Liberia declared him its poet laureate. Beginning in 1952, he served two terms as mayor of all-black Langston. He died in 1966.

Resurrecting a legacy

The movie has instilled a sense of pride in the students and the Marshall community. The debate team, defunct after Tolson left the school in 1947, was resurrected in the last academic year and won a debate against Morehouse University. Clark called the win "icing on the cake."

In an interview with the Marshall (Texas) News Messenger, Washington said he thought the Wiley debaters "would be just a really wonderful story to tell. It's about the spoken word –– something you don't see much in film –– and about education and about debating."

Washington said this part of the story of blacks in America needs to be told –– that there is a huge gap between the end of the Civil War and the climax of the civil rights struggle in 1964. He called the movie a "David and Goliath" story.

He also said the spoken word is an important part of current hip-hop culture, and the debating film shows the roots of that tradition. "Our oral history is rich and deep, and debating is a big part of it, a part I didn't know about. It's something I want to share on the film with others," he told the newspaper.

Wiley College is the first historically black college west of the Mississippi River. It was founded in 1873 by Bishop Issac Wiley of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Freedman's Aid Society to prepare the newly emancipated people for the future. The college is one of 11 historically black United Methodist-related institutions of higher education and is financially supported by the denomination's Black College Fund.

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Related Articles

Denzel Washington is The Great Debater

Wiley College Librarian Talks About The Great Debaters

'Great Debaters' tells story about Wiley


Wiley College

The Great Debaters   

Ask Now

This will not reach a local church, district or conference office. InfoServ* staff will answer your question, or direct it to someone who can provide information and/or resources.


*InfoServ ( about ) is a ministry of United Methodist Communications located in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. 1-800-251-8140

Not receiving a reply?
Your Spam Blocker might not recognize our email address. Add this address to your list of approved senders.

Would you like to ask any questions about this story?ASK US NOW

Original text