Tamala's ties to the "Great Debater"

December 20, 2007 9:01:49 PM PST
A movie opening on Christmas day tells the true story of an African-American debate team that made history against very long odds. Set in the 1930's, "The Great Debaters" is based on the story of charismatic Wiley College professor Melvin Tolson, played by Denzel Washington, and the debate team he coaches to triumph.

In 1930, Wiley, a tiny black school in Marshall, Texas, added this rarity: A female debater. The movie character is called Samantha Booke. But she's largely based on the last of the original great debaters, Henrietta Bell Wells.

Childless, she was a dean at my father's college and took him on as a son. All my life, I've known her the way she signed every card, "my other grandmother." 96 now, Ma Wells' hearing is weak, but her memory is SHARP.

"It's just so vivid," said Henrietta. "And Mr. Tolson would always say that, 'You know Bell, I'm taking a big chance on you.' and he was."

Tolson placed his bets wisely. Henrietta Bell was raised poor in Houston by her single mother. But she was feisty, graduating valedictorian of her high school. At Wiley she had three jobs, but still became a student leader. That drive got her an audition with Tolson.

"In the time he had been there he had never seen a girl he would use as a debater. But that's what he wanted," said Ma Wells.

"Bell", as Tolson called her, made the team, the only freshman and the only woman.

A home near the Wiley College campus used to belong to Professor Melvin Tolson. And it is in that house, in front of the fireplace, that Henrietta Bell and the rest of the debaters practiced constantly, night after night, getting good enough to win and to make history.

Wiley trounced almost every black college, like Virginia Union and Fisk. And then it broke the color line, facing white law students from the University of Michigan.

Racial violence then was intense, to the point that only light-skinned Wiley debaters sat upright on road trips. The darker ones hid on the car floorboards. But when Henrietta Bell, just 88 pounds and in a borrowed suit and pearls, stood to debate Michigan, she only thought of victory.

"I never was afraid. It's all business. This is business. You've got to win this debate," she said. "Sometimes its frightening to me that I was able to do these things and not be afraid. I mean it is."

Ma Wells went on to a quieter life as a social worker and teacher. This movie revives her historical mark, and reminds me of a debt. I told her about how it's because of her and how she stepped out on that stage, and took a chance, that I now have a chance to step out.

Ma Wells then told me, "I've known you all your life. You haven't been afraid. You've taken the first step all the time. And it's paid off. It's paid off. And I love you for it."