Henrietta Wells remembers well 'The Great Debaters' -- she was one of them

January 10, 2008

"I told Denzel Washington he should play the part," Henrietta Bell Wells told me recently at the Houston assisted living center where the 95-year-old now resides.


Wells, a longtime member of St. James' Episcopal Church in Houston, sat in her wheelchair, wrapped in a soft snow-white sweater that matched her perfectly coiffed hair. Her manicured hands, resting in her lap, periodically danced to punctuate a vivid memory of her mentor, Wiley College debate coach Melvin B. Tolson.

Wells was the sole female member of the college's debate team from Marshall, Texas, that Tolson coached to national acclaim.

"He (Washington) 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 spoke to Washington at the Texas college during the planning for the movie where she scoured old yearbooks and decades-old texts to help with the research. Washington apparently followed her advice.

He is not only directing but starring with Forest Whitaker in a movie called "The Great Debaters," produced by Oprah Winfrey and in theaters now. The movie received a Golden Globe nomination for best drama and may also receive an Oscar nod when those nominations are announced.

In the limelight
In recent weeks, Wells has endured many 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's exciting and stressful, all at the same time, she said. 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 Washington to play down 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 herself for the part.

Wells, born in Houston in 1912, said church has always been a large part of her life. She described her maternal grandfather as a "strong Episcopalian" in the West Indies and her mother, Octavia, made sure it was part of their family life in Houston. In 1923, Wells was the first African American child baptized at St. Clements' Episcopal Church (re-chartered as St. Luke the Evangelist in 1927) by Bishop Clinton Quin.

She was a valedictorian at her graduation 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, she said, and when her English professor asked her to try out for the debate team, she wasn't sure what that was.

"We didn't have debates in high school," she said. "I guess I did all right. 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 the coach'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.

"We would sit on the floor in the Tolson's living room and discuss topics," she said. "Mr. Tolson was very serious and very strict; 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."

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 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.

After graduation, she returned to Houston 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. Clements' Episcopal Church choir after the couple met. When they married and moved to Gary, Indiana, Wallace worked as a church organist at St. Augustine's Episcopal Church.
Henrietta worked as a caseworker, then 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 in Evanston, Illinois, after returning from his tour of duty, and after ordination he served churches in Indiana for the next 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.

Four years later, in 1967, the Wellses returned to Houston where Henrietta became the first African American teacher at Bonner Elementary School.

What's her advice for today's college students? "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.

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