Two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington was recognized at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, for his contributions toward raising awareness around the world about the value of debate education. Washington was honored during the awards ceremony in late January for the nation’s first Historically Black Colleges and Universities Speech and Debate Championship Tournament, which was held over three days on Wiley’s campus.
In accepting the award, Mr. Washington pledged to renew a $1 million gift to the College to continue his funding of its debate program. Washington first donated $1 million to the school in 2007 to support the re-establishment of its debate program, which had been inactive since the early 1900s, when it was led by English professor and poet, Melvin B. Tolson. Washington starred in and directed the film, “The Great Debaters,” which chronicled the history of the team under Tolson’s mentoring and coaching.
Washington regularly checks in with Wiley’s debate team to encourage its continued success. He last visited Wiley in 2015 and had lunch with the team. He was surprised on that visit when he was presented an honorary doctorate degree for his philanthropy in the field of education.
“We are thankful to Mr. Washington for his generous gift to sustain our debate program and ensure its longevity,” said Dr. Haywood L. Strickland, President and CEO of Wiley College. “Through his support of Wiley College, he has preserved the legacy of the original Great Debaters, while also ensuring that current generations of students can carry forward Tolson’s legacy of excellence. We are forever indebted to him.”
Since the rebirth of the program, which is officially known as the Melvin B. Tolson/Denzel Washington Forensics Society, the team has earned more than 3,000 awards and has twice won the Overall Sweepstakes Championship and the Individual Events Sweepstakes Championship of the Pi Kappa Delta National Comprehensive Tournament, a prestigious debate competition that Tolson’s teams were not allowed to take part in.
After a standing ovation for Mr. Washington during the awards ceremony, he was joined on stage by Bob Eisele storywriter and scriptwriter for “The Great Debaters” and Jeff Poro, storywriter for the “The Great Debaters,” who were also recognized for their work.
Washington was also one of the three inductees into the newly formed HBCU Forensics Hall of Fame during the awards ceremony. Other inductees were Tolson, posthumously, and Dr. Thomas F. Freeman, the legendary and longest-serving speech and debate coach, who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., trained Barbara Jordan, and also trained Denzel Washington for his role in “The Great Debaters.”
Last fall, Wiley College formed the HBCU Speech and Debate League, which hosted the tournament, thanks to a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation.