New Film Will Put Wiley College on the Map

Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, is a small, historically black educational institution with about 800 students. Most Americans, including most African Americans, probably have never heard of it. But this college, which was founded in 1873, will not remain unknown for long.

Denzel Washington and 2007 Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker have begun shooting a film entitled The Great Debaters, which is being produced by Oprah Winfrey. Scheduled for release in 2008, the film relates the story of the Wiley College debate team which from 1921 to 1936 lost only one of 75 debates. Along the way the team beat debaters from such highly respected educational institutions as Harvard, the University of Michigan, and Oxford University.

The Wiley College debate team was led by Melvin B. Tolson, a professor of speech and English. During this period Tolson, who will be played by Denzel Washington in the film, also was the director of the theater club and coached the junior varsity football team.

In 1947 Tolson, a graduate of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, was named poet laureate of the nation of Liberia. He ended his academic career teaching at Langston University in Oklahoma and served two terms as the town’s mayor. Tolson died from cancer in 1966 at the age of 68.