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Movie revives black college's debate team

Great Debaters
Wiley College student Megan Moten presents her argument as Caress Russell, center, and Keisha Coleman wait for their turn to talk during a practice session for the school's debate team. Donna Mcwilliam / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The movie "The Great Debaters" made millions aware of the decades-old accomplishments of the debate team at a small historically black college tucked deep in the piney woods of East Texas — and gave that history new life at the school itself.

Before work began on the film, the Wiley College team that broke racial barriers with several impressive victories in the 1930s was a faded memory. When the school received e-mails from debaters all over the country after the movie was released a year ago, there was no team for them to join.

That has changed, thanks to donations including $1 million from the movie's star and director, Denzel Washington. An 11-member team started debating this fall, and its ranks are expected to eventually grow to about 30.

"Obviously, the movie generated a lot of enthusiasm and interest in the story," said Joseph Morale, vice president for student affairs and enrollment services at Wiley.

"It's just been a wonderful ride."

Washington played Melvin B. Tolson, a noted poet who formed the debate group after coming to the private school in 1923 as an English professor. Research shows that, from about 1929 to 1939, the team debated 75 times and only lost once; in 1935, Wiley beat the national champions, the University of Southern California.

The teams Tolson put together included students who went on to distinguish themselves, notably James Farmer Jr., the civil rights leader who formed the Congress of Racial Equality.

Evelyn Bonner, Wiley's director of library services, said it's unclear exactly when debate ceased at Wiley, but Tolson left in 1947 and experts say that many debate teams had fallen apart with the start of World War II.

Morale said the movie not only told Wiley's story to the world, but reminded the college itself of its past.

Coach hired last summer
Haywood L. Strickland, the school's president since 2000, said the idea of restarting the program came while the movie crew was doing research on the campus. He said Washington's donation, helped jump-start its revival.

"We're always looking for ways in which to engage and excite students," he said. "It occurred to us that even though it's something built on history, it's been demonstrated this is a good way to get students involved."

Debate coach Shannon LaBove came to Wiley over the summer. She whittled down the prospects to a team of 11, all of whom got some kind of scholarship.

The new team did an exhibition debate at Oklahoma City University in October to commemorate the 1931 meeting between the two teams, believed to have been the first interracial debate in the South.

"We have to make our own history, while respecting the previous," LaBove said.

She said this is a building year for the team, but she expects it to be nationally competitive within a couple of years.

"I think we want to once again put Wiley on the map as a force to be reckoned with," she said.

The primarily liberal arts university, founded in 1873, has 967 students and its enrollment has been climbing for the last eight years. It's located in Marshall, a town of about 24,000 not far from the Louisiana state line.

College enrollment jumps
Morale said the movie undoubtedly helped boost enrollment this year, and a documentary released this fall also has brought attention. The Dallas-based production company AMS Pictures' "The Real Great Debaters of Wiley College" chronicles the lives of Tolson and some of his debaters.

Caress Russell of Atlanta was among those who contacted Wiley after seeing "The Great Debaters." The 22-year-old, who had taken off a year to work following a freshman year at Mercer University, wanted to be part of the debate team after learning that Wiley was bringing it back.

"If it wasn't for the movie, I wouldn't be here at all," said Russell, who had participated in speech events in high school and at Mercer.

Tristan Love had been planning to go to Morehouse College in Atlanta, but the offer of a full scholarship to Wiley changed the high school debater's plans.

"There's nothing like that adrenaline rush" of debating, said Love, 18.

Love had seen the movie and enjoyed it, but didn't think much about it until he got the offer from Wiley. Then, he said with a smile, he was inundated with copies of the movie from well-wishers.