This is a timeline of the Great Debaters. A debate team from a small Texas town that shocked a nation. This team broke down barriers before it was known to be possible. The team is the only in history to achieve a record of one loss in over ten years of debating. This team trained advocates that helped to shape the Civil Rights movement.
Tolson organized a debate team in 1924, shortly after arriving at Wiley College. The team's original name was the Alphi Phi Omega Forensic Society. The college published its first yearbook in 1925 and penned in the purple prose popular at the time a description of the team and its initial accomplishments.
"Believing that the science of argumentation is the greatest instrumentation that can be used in the cultivation of mental alertness, a small group of students under the leadership of Prof. M. B. Tolson organized the Forensic Society of Wiley College October 28, 1924. . . . The activities of the organization resulted in the formation of a New Era in Wiley and brought to her campus the first inter-collegiate debate in her history. The Wiley team, which had been well coached by Prof. Tolson, received the trio from Bishop College. Clearness and force, combined with oratory, brought an overwhelming victory to the debaters of the 'Purple and White.'"
The First Interracial Debate
By the spring of 1930, when his team was ready to go on tour, Tolson decided it was time to break new ground. Somehow he managed to schedule a series of non-decision debates with law students of the University of Michigan, an all-white institution. The 1930 Wildcat duly noted the coup, pointing out, "It was the first time, as far as Tolson knew, [that] colored debaters met a northern university of the Anglo-Saxon race." Bell and her partner, junior Harry Hines, met the white students at Chicago's massive 7th Street Theater, the largest black-owned hall in town, because no white-owned facility would host a racially mixed audience. Bell remembers the auditorium being so full that some of the audience had to stand. In addition to Hines and Bell, Tolson brought along Henry Heights as the anchor man alternate, in case he determined Heights to be better prepared on a subject or side than his varsity team. Heights was never used. His day in the sun would come four years later.
The First Interracial Debate in the South
On March 21, 1930, Wiley College debated Oklahoma City University, a Methodist-affiliated college, as was Wiley. "This was the first time that white and colored students ever discussed a proposition in the South from the same platform," Tolson wrote in a column for The Washington Tribune. "Avery Chapel was packed with black and white citizens who came to see the signal event. When the two teams took their places on the platform, they were received with tremendous applause. The vast audience seemed to realize that history was being made."
The First Woman
In the fall of 1930, Henrietta Bell, who would later marry Wallace Wells, was a freshman in an English class taught by Mr. Tolson. The professor urged her to try out for the debate team, because she seemed to be able to think on her feet. She was the first woman on the team.
In an interview with The Houston Chronicle in 2007, she said the boys “didn’t seem to mind me.”
But the work was far from easy. Miss Bell attended classes during the day, had three campus jobs and practiced debating at night. The intensity of debating was reflected in Mr. Tolson’s characterization of it as “a blood sport.”
But the hard work paid off. In the interview with The Chronicle, Mrs. Wells declared, “We weren’t intimidated.”
Henrietta Pauline Bell was born on the banks of Buffalo Bayou in Houston on Oct. 11, 1912, and raised by a hard-pressed single mother from the West Indies. When riots broke out in 1917 over police treatment of black soldiers at a World War I training camp, the family’s house was searched. Mrs. Wells recalled being unable to try on clothes in segregated stores.
She did not debate in high school but was valedictorian of her class. She earned a modest scholarship from the Y.M.C.A. to go to Wiley, Episcopal Life reported.
James Farmer Jr. Attends Wiley
Having won a four-year college scholarship based on a series of Marshall Texas's Central High School oratorical contests sponsored by the black Elks Clubs, James Farmer Jr.'s ability as a public speaker was established by the time he entered Wiley College in September 1934. His cerebral father, Dr. J. Leonard Farmer, had been a Bible professor on the faculty since 1933. Although young James Farmer was only fourteen, he was recruited immediately by English professor and debate coach Melvin Tolson for the college's formidable debate team.
Enrolled in Tolson's English class, Farmer was confronted by the man he would later call provider of "the banquet of my years at Wiley College" to use his analytical mind to dig deeper, study harder, and read more widely than the average student. In class, Tolson would play devil's advocate, forcing students to defend their ideas against opposing views. And if Farmer failed to do so, Tolson said he would flunk him. He soon offered Farmer the real challenge. "Speaking of opposing views," Tolson said, "My varsity debaters come over to the house every Tuesday and Thursday evening to prepare for the intercollegiate debate season. You come over too. Some of them, at least one, will try to make hamburger out of you—a young upstart and Dr. Farmer's son—so fight back, my boy, fight back." Thus was Farmer introduced to a skill that would serve him well the rest of his life.
Texas Christian University
From "Wiley’s Sages:
Debate team from historically black college challenged segregated America"
by E.R. Bills,
Ft. Worth Magazine,
In the early spring of 1935, they were well-received in Fort Worth when Texas Christian University made history by becoming the first white college in the South to invite a black college team onto its campus for a debate. Wiley debaters Hobart Jarrett and Cleveland Gay handily defeated the recently formed Forensic Frogs and, afterward,the crowd rushed the stage to shake their hands and congratulate them. Tolson later remarked that TCU “had a splendid team, and we were never received more agreeably anywhere.”
Tolson Stops Coaching Debate
One of his debaters correctly observed that "Tolson loved to win." Curiously, however, in the wake of unprecedented success, Tolson's priorities shifted. Commenting on this change in his thinking, Tolson noted, "There's more to life than winning personal victories." Tolson realized that he was not employed by Wiley to coach the debate team, he was paid to teach English. Tolson concluded that, :Debate was play, life was serious." When Tolson stopped coaching debate at Wiley College, the team is dissolved until its reinvention in 2008.
Poet Laureate of Liberia
Tolson received his most distinguished honor during the summer of 1947, as he was preparing to leave Marshall for his new position at Langston. He was designated Poet Laureate of Liberia.
Tolson Leaves Wiley College
By 1947, Tolson decided to accept an invitation to teach in the English Department at Langston University in Oklahoma. Tolson's decision to leave was based primarily on economic considerations. Langston offered him a raise in pay and also a state funded pension.
In 1964, Tolson was diagnosed with abdominal cancer. However, in 1965 he published his third book. In the same year, despite his illness, Tolson accepted numerous speaking engagements and appointment as Avalon Chair in Humanities at Tuskegee Institute. Tolson died on August 29, 1966 and was buried in Guthrie, Oklahoma.
In the spring of 1997 and article was published in American Legacy Magazine, detailing the success of Tolson and The Great Debaters. This article was discovered by Jeff Porro and Robert Eisele, who developed the screenplay for the 2007 movie.
Denzel Washington donated $1 million to Wiley College to re-establish its debate team.The team was promptly named the Melvin B Tolson/Denzel Washington Forensics Society.
Washington was in Marshall to screen "The Great Debaters," the story of Wiley's 1930s debate team. He directed the film and stars as educator and poet Melvin Tolson, who led the HBCU's elite debate squad.
During his appearance, Mr. Washington, the actor-director said he would like to see the team get going again.
The First National Champions
In 2010, members of the Great Debaters earned their first individual championship awards. Pi Kappa Delta National Championship Tournament. Caress Russell was named Champion in Poetry Interpretation; while Sean Allen and Terrence Muse were named Champions in Duo Interpretation.
The First National Team Title
Only five years after the team's recreation, The Great Debaters win their first national team title at the NCFFA National Championship. The team was crowned the National Individual Events Sweepstakes Champions; this marks the first National Team title won by any HBCU.
Pi Kappa Delta National Champions
In 2014, The Great Debaters earned the Overall Sweepstakes Champion award at the Pi Kappa Delta National Comprehensive Tournament. This championship is the first Overall National Team Title won by any HBCU. The significance of this win extends beyond the title itself. Pi Kappa Delta was the only Forensics organization during Tolson's tenure as coach. Despite the team's unparalleled record in debate, including interracial debates,Pi Kappa Delta would not extend membership to Wiley College, because it is an HBCU. So, the 2014 Championship is dedicated to Melvin Tolson and The Great Debaters he coached.