Sunday, December 2, 2007

A woman among "The Great Debaters"

Speechwriting colleague Jeff Porro now has a new movie's story to his credit--and it offers a look at a groundbreaking female debater, Henrietta Bell Wells (UPDATE: Find out more about Henrietta in these additional posts about her.) The forthcoming film The Great Debaters, directed by and starring Denzel Washington, looks at the first black college debate team to participate in and win interracial debates in the 1930s. The Wiley College varsity debate team broke gender as well as racial barriers with professor Melvin Tolson's selection of Wells (then Bell), the team's only woman, depicted as the fictional "Samantha" in the film by Jurnee Smollett. Porro, who interviewed Wells to develop the movie story, said in an interview:
She said when she was a freshman in 1930, Tolson picked her and he said she was the first girl that he ever let try out. She was on the varsity team. She said "He thought I could think on my feet."
The movie looks at a form of debate now considered old-fashioned, Porro says. "What's now the standard in debating is pretty non-interesting for non-experts. The classic debate is not nearly as popular as it used to be, so I'm hoping this movie gives it a rebirth," he says, noting that the style--and Tolson's method--calls for the speaker to "think on your feet and give a well-prepared presentation, rather than just spew out a bunch of facts."

The movie shows the Wiley team winning again and again when pitted against white debating teams, culminating with a major debate at Harvard (one that the university couldn't actually document). The real barrier was broken at a 1930 debate in Chicago, opposite the University of Michigan--the first interracial college debate. Wells told Porro her memories of the event:
She said she felt so small on that big stage in Chicago, but determined that to make it, 'I had to use my common sense." And she recalled that Tolson wanted the debaters to be very proper and formal. He had her wear a dark suit and cut her hair in a boyish bob. My impression from talking to her was he didn't want to give the white audiences any chance to dismiss them, to get rid of any stereotypes they might have. And Tolson insisted there be a chaperone for her. They went to Chicago, they did a tour with Fiske College to Pine Bluff, Ark, and to Houston, which was exciting for Henrietta because that's her hometown.
Porro notes that Wells only debated for that one year, then dropped off the team. "She had to work three jobs...at the end of the season she stopped debating because she had to be off campus a long time, but she did dramatics and kept up with that. Tolson was involved in that dept as well."

Tolson's teaching and coaching of speakers may seem remarkable to us today, and not just for its societal advances, but its content. In an article about Tolson for the National Council of Teachers of English, David Gold notes that:
At many private, black liberal arts colleges, the classical liberal arts tradition persisted well into the 1920s, with Latin and Greek retained as part of the standard curriculum long after such courses had been dropped from the requirements at elite white schools. Oratory, moved to the periphery of the curriculum elsewhere, continued to play an important role; speechwriting was frequently incorporated into freshman composition courses, and debate and drama were enormously popular campus activities.
Gold goes on to quote Wells--at 95, the last surviving member of the debate team featured in the movie--about Tolson's strict methods:
“You didn’t dare turn in an essay with a spelling mistake,” says Henrietta Bell Wells who listed him as the school’s “crabbiest teacher” in her 1931 yearbook but still counts herself as “a disciple of Mr. Tolson....He would walk in the door. ‘Bell! What is a verb!’ And you’d better know. He was hard on his students. They were scared, but when they got out, they knew English....“You couldn’t shock him,” says Wells, “but he would often shock you.”
Wells went on to become a social worker, and teammate James Farmer, Jr. won fame as the leader of the Freedom Marches during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Porro, who found the Wiley College debaters' story in a magazine article, and recalls, "When I saw the name James Farmer, that made me stop--I had seen him when I was a 17-year-old freshman at Berkeley. It was a demonstr about free speech, and this guy was the most articulate human being I've ever heard. He was like a Shakespearean actor with a deep rolling voice and an eyepatch. So when I read about this story about his being on a team that debated white universities, I knew it had to become a movie." (Photos by David Lee, The Weinstein Company)