Life-long Episcopalian, “Great Debater,” dies at 96

The New York Times reports:

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.

Other debates with white schools followed, culminating with Wiley’s 1935 victory over the national champion, the University of Southern California.

Read it all here.

Back in January, Carol E. Barnwell wrote in the Daily Episcopalian:

“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 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.

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