By Bill Fentum
Staff Writer for the United Methodist Reporter
LOS ANGELES—Actor-director Denzel Washington chose to make The Great Debaters, he says, because the movie tells a perfect “David and Goliath” story. And indeed, it does read that way.
In 1935, debaters from United Methodist-related Wiley College, a small liberal arts school about three hours east of Dallas in Marshall, Texas, won a national championship match against the University of Southern California. A few decades earlier, the event itself would have been unthinkable. That’s because Wiley is an historically black institution, started in 1873 by the Freedman’s Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The school’s original goal was to train teachers for black elementary and secondary schools throughout the South.
That idea drew bitter resistance at the time from many people in East Texas’ Harrison County, once home to the state’s largest population of slaves. “The faculty was threatened with violence, some were run out of town,” said Lloyd Thompson, a professor of history at Wiley. “And across the state, teachers and students at black schools were often killed.” But Wiley survived even the burning of five of its buildings in 1906; a century later it enrolls more than 900 students.
On screen Mr. Washington plays Melvin Tolson, a poet and English professor who launched the debate program after coming to Wiley in 1924. The teams, hand-picked by Tolson each year, lost only one match in 15 years and gained renown by defeating several Ivy League schools.
“I thought of this as a sports movie,” Mr. Washington said during a Dec. 8 press conference at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. “And that’s really true. Debating was a spectator sport back then, and you could fill a 1,500-seat auditorium. That ended when TV came along.”
The young stars who play the 1935 teammates trained for two days under debate coaches at Texas Southern University in Houston. They also studied the history of the Jim Crow era, to better understand the racism faced by the characters.
“You’re thrown into that world and you feel it as an actor,” said Denzel Whitaker, 17. “Part of me lived it.” Mr. Whitaker portrays 14-year-old James Farmer Jr., who went on to become a Civil Rights leader and co-founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). In 1961, Farmer organized the Freedom Riders, a group that traveled across the South challenging segregation on interstate buses. Interviewed by screenwriter Robert Eisele one year before his death in 1999, Farmer credited Tolson—also a political activist—with inspiring him to stand up for his rights.
Another Wiley debater was Heman Sweatt, who was blocked from attending the University of Texas law school in 1946. He took legal action that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, helping to pave the way for integration of schools across the country. Ironically, the end of segregation led to hard times at Wiley. In 1971, enrollment had dropped so low that administrators planned to shut the college down.
The Rev. Robert Hayes Sr., a United Methodist minister in the Texas Conference, was appointed president of Wiley “to give it a decent burial.” Instead he raised more than $1 million to keep it open, relying on contacts he had made as a bishop’s assistant. “I remember my dad getting up many mornings and saying, ‘Now, where am I going to get $25,000 today to make ends meet?’” said Mr. Hayes’ son, Bishop Robert Hayes Jr. (Oklahoma Area). “But he kept stirring the pot, asking people to give. It was the United Methodist connection that really kept Wiley open—the grace of God at work, and United Methodism at its finest.”
Bishop Hayes, who served as the school’s chaplain in those days, said Wiley still honors its ties to the church. Weekly worship convocations are held on campus, and the school hosts a Religious Emphasis Week each February, inviting speakers from around the world.
“It is indeed a religious school,” said Dr. Thompson, the Wiley history professor. “My wife told me not long ago, ‘You need to go to church more often.’ I said, ‘You have to remember, I probably attend church more than you do.’ I’m in church every week, because I never miss the convocations.’”
The college has faced more financial struggles, but expects to emerge from the red in the 2008 fiscal year. As a promotional tie-in with The Great Debaters, Wal-Mart has announced it will give Wiley $100,000 to fund a Melvin B. Tolson scholarship. What’s more, a new debate team was launched last spring, the first since Tolson left the faculty in 1947.
“The pendulum is swinging back,” Bishop Hayes said, “and people are taking notice that Wiley’s legacy didn’t just start with the movie. It started almost a century-and-a-half ago and continues to this day. “All of these things coming together at this time really do tell a tremendous story.”
Bill Fentum is a staff writer for The United Methodist Reporter. This story was published in the December 21 issue of the Reporter, and is posted on Preview with permission from UMR Communications, 1221 Profit Drive, Dallas, Texas 75247. 1-800-947-0207.