A “Great Debater” looks back

By Carol E. Barnwell

“I told Denzel Washington he should play the part,” Henrietta Bell Wells said, when we spoke recently at the Houston facility where the 95-year old now resides. Wells, a longtime member of St. James’ Episcopal Church, Houston, was seated in her wheelchair, wrapped in a soft white sweater, the same snow white as her perfectly coiffed hair. Her manicured hands rest in her lap and periodically dance to punctuate a vivid memory of Wiley College debate coach Melvin B. Tolson, a character in the Christmas release, The Great Debaters.

Wells was the only female member of the debate team from Wiley College in Marshall, TX that Tolson coached to national attention. Washington directed the movie, produced by Oprah Winfrey, and took the story to the big screen this Christmas. It’s a good thing that Washington took Wells’ advice. The movie has garnered a Golden Globe nomination for best drama and may also receive an Oscar nod.

“He just wanted to direct the movie,” Wells said, “But I told him he was perfect for the part of Mr. Tolson and if he wasn’t the star, he would lose a lot of people.” Wells met Washington at Wiley College during the planning stages of the movie. She looked through old yearbooks and found texts she used nearly 80 years ago to help with the research, she said.

Wells has done television and newspaper interviews and has turned down a number of others. “I never expected the movie to cause so much interest, so much attention to my inner life,” she said. It has been exciting and stressful all at the same time, but bring up “Denzel” and a smile lights up her face. “He is a jewel and a gentleman. The first time he saw me, he said, ‘Well, I’ve got another grandma.’ I felt so proud,” Wells beamed.

Although growing up during the Jim Crow era was a challenge, Wells said she encouraged Denzel Washington to play down the racial prejudice in The Great Debaters. She remembers state troopers raiding her home in 1917 to look for black soldiers during race riots in Houston, but said the debate team was more motivated to please their coach, “rather than a race issue.”

“We worked hard and we weren’t intimidated,” she said.

Jurnee Smollett, the actress who plays Samantha Booke, the character based on Wells, visited Wells and practiced with the Texas Southern University debate team in Houston to prepare for the part.

Wells was born in Houston’s Fourth Ward in 1912. “Church has always been a large part of my life,” she said. Her maternal grandfather was a “strong Episcopalian” in the West Indies and her mother Octavia made sure it was part of their life in Houston. In 1923, Wells was the first African American child baptized at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church (re-chartered as St. Luke the Evangelist in 1927) by Bishop Clinton Quin and was later confirmed at Trinity, Houston.

Wells graduated valedictorian from Houston’s Phyllis Wheatley High School and attended the all black Wiley College on a modest scholarship from the YMCA. She worked three jobs to make ends meet and said, when her English professor asked her to try out for the debate team, she wasn’t sure what it was. “We didn’t have debates in high school,” she said. “I guess I did alright. He stood at the back of the chapel and I read from the front. That was his test.”

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

The team practiced at Tolson’s home several times a week during debating season and since she was the only female on the team, the college’s president arranged for a chaperone during tournaments. Friends filled in for her at work.

“We would sit on the floor in the Tolson’s living room and discuss topics,” Wells said. “Mr. Tolson was very serious and very strict,” she said, adding, “There were no frills, everything had to be correct. It was fun being the only girl on the team, but it was a lot of hard work.” Wells said Tolson remained her role model all through college.

The Wiley team first beat almost every black college, and eventually broke the color line, facing white law students from the University of Michigan. The team, Henry Heights, Hobart Jarrett and Henrietta Bell Wells lost only one debate out of 75 leading to the national 1935 championship. They triumphed against the national champions, the University of Southern California, with topics of civil rights and freedom of speech at a time when lynching was frequent in the deep South.

Wells returned to Houston after graduation where she met and later married Wallace Wells, the brother of one of her high school teachers. Wallace, who received his masters in music from the University of Southern California, added his rich baritone to St. Clement’s church choir after the couple first met. When they married and moved to Gary, Indiana, Wallace worked as a church organist at St. Augustine’s. Henrietta worked as a caseworker and later, as a case supervisor for the welfare department. “I always wanted to be a social worker, and I turned out to be a pretty good one,” she said.

Wallace’s musical career was interrupted by World War II, but he attended seminary at Seabury Western after returning from his tour of duty, was ordained and served churches in Indiana for the following 25 years. In 1963, the couple moved to New Orleans where Wallace was dean of chapel at Dillard University and Henrietta served as dean of women. In 1967, the Wells returned to Houston where Henrietta became the first African American teacher at Bonner Elementary School.

What’s her advice for college students today? “Learn to speak well and learn to express yourself effectively,” she said. Her training as one of the “Great Debaters” carried Wells through a successful life and career and, at 95, continues to serve her well as the interviewers line up at her door.

Carol E. Barnwell is director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.

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