For anyone who has seen the movie "The Great Debaters" the New York Times is reporting that one of the real life characters protrayed in the film has passed away.
Henrietta Bell Wells was the only female and freshman member of the Wiley college team who defeated then national champions University of Southern California (not Harvard as in the film) in a debate in 1935.
The New York Times article:
Henrietta Bell Wells, the only woman, the only freshman and the last surviving member of the 1930 Wiley College debate team that participated in the first interracial collegiate debate in the United States, died on Feb. 27 in Baytown, Tex. She was 96.
Her friend Edward Cox confirmed the death.
The story of the team, called the Great Debaters in last year’s movie of the same name, began in 1924 at Wiley College, a small liberal arts college in Marshall, Tex., founded a half century earlier by the Methodist Episcopal Church to educate “newly freed men.”
Melvin B. Tolson arrived at the all-black school that autumn to teach English and other subjects. He also started a debate team.
Mr. Tolson, who would win wide distinction as a poet, saw argumentation as a way to cultivate mental alertness. Wiley was soon debating and defeating black colleges two and three times its size.
In 1930, Mr. Tolson decided to break new ground. He managed to schedule a debate with the University of Michigan Law School, an all-white school. Wiley won. Other debates with white schools followed, culminating with Wiley’s 1935 victory over the national champion, the University of Southern California.
Mr. Tolson’s stunningly successful debate team was portrayed in “The Great Debaters,” directed by Denzel Washington. Describing the cinematic young debaters in The Chicago Sun-Times, the critic Roger Ebert wrote, “They are black, proud, single-minded, focused, and they express all this most dramatically in their debating.”
In the fall of 1930, Henrietta Bell, who would later marry Wallace Wells, was a freshman in an English class taught by Mr. Tolson. The professor urged her to try out for the debate team, because she seemed to be able to think on her feet. She was the first woman on the team.
In an interview with The Houston Chronicle in 2007, she said the boys “didn’t seem to mind me.”
But the work was far from easy. Miss Bell attended classes during the day, had three campus jobs and practiced debating at night. The intensity of debating was reflected in Mr. Tolson’s characterization of it as “a blood sport.”
But the hard work paid off. In the interview with The Chronicle, Mrs. Wells declared, “We weren’t intimidated.”
Henrietta Pauline Bell was born on the banks of Buffalo Bayou in Houston on Jan. 11, 1912, and raised by a hard-pressed single mother from the West Indies. When riots broke out in 1917 over police treatment of black soldiers at a World War I training camp, the family’s house was searched. Mrs. Wells recalled being unable to try on clothes in segregated stores.
She did not debate in high school but was valedictorian of her class. She earned a modest scholarship from the Y.M.C.A. to go to Wiley, Episcopal Life reported.
In the spring of 1930, Miss Bell, her teammates and her chaperone arrived at the Seventh Street Theater in Chicago. It was the largest black-owned theater in town, because no large white-owned facility would admit a racially mixed audience, according to an article in The Marshall News-Messenger. Mrs. Wells remembered a standing-room-only crowd.
She wore a dark suit and had her hair cut in a boyish bob. In an interview with Jeffrey Porro, one of the screenwriters of “The Great Debaters,” she felt very small on that very big stage. “I had to use my common sense,” she said.
She remembered Mr. Tolson urging her to punch up her delivery. “You’ve got to put something in there to wake the people up,” he had said.
Mrs. Wells told The Chronicle, “It was a nondecision debate, but we felt at the time that it was a giant step toward desegregation.”
She debated for only one year, because of the need to work for money. She kept up with drama, which Mr. Tolson also coached. After graduating from college, she returned to Houston, where she met Mr. Wells and married. He was a church organist and later an Episcopal minister. She worked as a teacher and social worker.
Mrs. Wells advised Mr. Washington on the movie, using her scrapbooks as visual aids. She urged him to play Mr. Tolson, something he at first was not inclined to do. He called her “another grandma.”
Mr. Wells died in 1987. Mrs. Wells left no immediate survivors.
Her advice to today’s students was straightforward: “Learn to speak well and learn to express yourself effectively.”
She learned this lesson directly from Mr. Tolson, whom she called her crabbiest and best teacher. He was known for issuing intellectual challenges immediately upon entering the classroom.
A typical salutation: “Bell! What is a verb?”