Wednesday, May 22, 2013
One lesser known aspect of Texas history is the success of the Wiley College debate team. Wiley College is located in Marshall, TX and was founded in 1873 and is thought of as the first Black college west of the Mississippi River. The school's debate team had an incredibly successful run starting in the early 20th century. Their 1935 season was chronicled in the 2007 film "The Great Debaters" directed by and starring Denzel Washington.
Washington played the English teacher/debate coach Melvin Tolson. Tolson taught at Wiley College from 1924-1947. He was known as an accomplished scholar, poet and activist.
The '35 team from the film consists or characters that were both directly based on specific former students and based on amalgams of various students. James L. Farmer Jr. appears as a character in the film and was an actual student at Wiley and member of the debate team. He was a child prodigy and attended the college when he was only fourteen. He was played by Denzel Whitaker (not to be confused with Denzel Washington, after whom he was named, and is no relation to Forest Whitaker, who also appears in the film.)
His father, James L. Farmer Sr. was a faculty member at Wiley College and was the first African American Texan to earn a doctorate from Harvard University. In the film he is played by Forest Whitaker:
On the campus of Wiley College there is a historical marker honoring Dr. Farmer Sr.:
The Samantha Booke (with an "E") character was loosely based on Henrietta Bell Wells who was the first women to join the debate team. She was played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell (from Friday Night Lights):
While they filmed the movie in a variety of locations they were able to shoot some scenes on the Wiley College campus, most noticeably outside the Wiley King Administration Building:
It's always interesting when a little piece of Texas history ends up on the big screen.