Ten years since the release of the movie “The Great Debaters,” a film that led to the revival of the forensics program at Wiley College, the movie’s director and star, two-time Oscar-winner Denzel Washington, will be honored by the school for his contributions toward raising awareness of the value of debate education around the world.
Washington will be recognized during the awards ceremony for the nation’s first Historically Black Colleges and Universities Speech and Debate Tournament Championship, which will be held at Wiley January 25-27.
“Through his support of Wiley College, Mr. Washington has preserved the legacy of the original Great Debaters and their debate coach and mentor, Melvin B. Tolson, while at the same time honoring Tolson’s memory by ensuring that current generations of students can carry forward Tolson’s legacy of excellence,” said Haywood L. Strickland, President and CEO of Wiley College. “He has been a staunch supporter of Wiley College and of historically black colleges, and we are forever indebted to him.”
Wiley’s Director of Forensics, Christopher Medina, expressed similar sentiments about Washington. “We are so pleased and it so fitting to have Mr. Washington back on campus as we launch the HBCU Speech and Debate Tournament,” he said. “Because of his unyielding support, our debate program was not only reborn, it has excelled in achieving goals of winning highly coveted prizes and awards, and producing Wiley graduates who credit debate education for equipping them with solid and marketable skills to compete in the workforce.”
When Washington is presented the award, he will be joined on stage by Bob Eisele story writer and script writer for “The Great Debaters” and Jeff Poro, story writer for the “The Great Debaters.”
On the same night that Washington is honored, the HBCU Debate League will induct Professor Tolson, posthumously, and legendary Houston debate coach Dr. Thomas Freeman, who trained Washington for his role in the movie, into its newly established Debate Hall of Fame.
“The Great Debaters” chronicles the history of Wiley’s debate teams in the early to mid-1900s under the mentoring and coaching of Tolson. After the film’s release, Washington made a $1 million gift to Wiley to fund the re-launching of the College’s debate program.
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.
Last fall, Wiley College formed the HBCU Speech and Debate League thanks to a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation. To date, 18 schools, including Tennessee State University, Howard University, Rust College, Prairie View A & M University, Jackson State University, and Xavier University, have joined the league, and will take part in the HBCU championship tournament.