For Anyone Planning to See Denzel's Latest Movie . . .


. . . The Great Debaters, which opens on Christmas Day (sorry about that dual poster), here's some background on the story, as reported by Laura Beil in today's New York Times. I enjoy historical movies, myself, although the ugliness of racism can often mar even a triumphant tale.

I hope the school gets a shot in the arm from the publicity.

December 5, 2007
For Struggling Black College, Hopes of a Revival
By LAURA BEIL

MARSHALL, Tex. — When the light at University Avenue is green, drivers can pass Wiley College without a glance. There was a time, however, when this small black liberal arts college here caught the attention of a nation: in the 1930s, Wiley’s polished team of debaters amassed a series of victories over white competitors that stunned the Jim Crow South.

The college would go on to groom civil rights leaders like James Farmer Jr. and Heman Sweatt, whose lawsuit against the University of Texas Law School in the 1940s helped pave the way for public school integration. Yet Wiley itself, like many black colleges, has struggled for survival ever since, and even reached the brink of collapse. This year, professors and staff members accepted unpaid furloughs. One employee could not share a recent report with trustees because his department could not afford copy paper.

Now Wiley is looking for a Hollywood ending.

On Dec. 25, “The Great Debaters" will appear in theaters with Denzel Washington as its director and star, and Oprah Winfrey as producer. The film depicts Wiley’s most glorious chapter: 1935, when the black poet and professor Melvin B. Tolson coached his debating team to a national championship.

No one knows whether the story will raise the college’s fortunes, but Wiley, which has not been able to support a debate team for decades, is suddenly feeling the glow of celebrity. Enrollment has soared past 900 for the first time in at least 40 years. The administration building was given a face-lift, compliments of the moviemakers, who also manicured the campus with new greenery. There are hopes to revive the debate program, and in a movie tie-in, Wal-Mart is to endow a Melvin B. Tolson Scholarship Fund with $100,000.

Today, callers to the institution are greeted with a cheery recorded reminder: “Home of the Great Debaters.” Jamecia Murray, a junior from Logansport, La., has joked to prospective students that “you could wake up in the morning and see Denzel Washington out your window.”
Movies can have an impact on schools that lingers for years. Garfield High School in Los Angeles, made famous by “Stand and Deliver” in 1988, was able to recoup quickly when its auditorium burned last May. By October, the school had received more than $100,000 in donations, largely from those who remembered the film. “Garfield itself has become synonymous with the movie,” Nadia Gonzales, a school district spokeswoman, said.

But celebrity can be unpredictable. While “Fame,” in 1980, brought the High School of Performing Arts in New York City a bumper crop of applicants, many students resented the portrayal of drug use and premarital sex.

In many respects, Wiley’s story is the larger narrative of historically black institutions whose graduates lived to see landmark achievements in the 1960s, including passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But after securing the opportunity for bright young students to attend any institution they wanted, many black colleges stalled.

Texas had 11 black colleges in 1954. Three are now gone, another is on probation for academic and other problems, and a fifth operated during most of the 1990s without accreditation.
Wiley’s woes reflect 130 years of racial and economic tumult. The Methodist Church founded Wiley in Marshall, in the northeast corner of the state, which has always aligned with the Deep South more than the Old West. Harrison County, home to Wiley, once held the largest slave population in the state, and antebellum culture cast a shadow on race relations well into the 20th century.

By the time Mr. Tolson arrived in 1923, Wiley had emerged as an elite institution for the black middle class. The son of a Missouri preacher, Mr. Tolson had a soul fed by the Harlem Renaissance. He was both feared and loved, inspiring, as one biographer wrote, “devotion bordering on adulation in many who knew him well.” He remained at Wiley 24 years, publishing his most heralded work of poetry a year before his death in 1966.

Wiley’s 1935 victory over the University of Southern California (the opponents in the film are from Harvard) inspired people long denied dignity in white society. But the film omits one reality: even though they beat the reigning champions, the Great Debaters were not allowed to call themselves victors because they did not belong to the debate society, which did not allow blacks until after World War II.

The most renowned member of the debate team was a teenage James Farmer Jr., who would go on to found the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942. He would later use his Wiley-honed skills in debates against Malcolm X, an unflinching orator. “I debated Malcolm X four times and beat him,” Mr. Farmer told an interviewer in 1997. “I’d think, ‘Come off it, Malcolm, you can’t win. You didn’t come up under Tolson.’”

In 1960, college students in Marshall were jailed for the first large sit-in in Texas. Within five years, the federal government would require integration.

But as black students and faculty members were courted by white institutions, the college’s identity became less clear. “I don’t think anybody could have calculated what integration would really do,” said Bob Hayes, a United Methodist bishop in Oklahoma whose father became president of Wiley in 1971.

Wiley’s football program, which had five national champion teams, disbanded in 1969. Two years later, the Methodist Church dispatched the Rev. Robert Hayes Sr. to Marshall to dissolve the college entirely. “The bishop said, ‘Go give it a decent funeral,’” recalled Mr. Hayes, who now lives in Houston.

But the elder Mr. Hayes, a Wiley graduate, could not bring himself to close his alma mater. A commanding preacher with a silky baritone, he convinced town bankers not to call in loans. Until he left in 1986, Mr. Hayes kept the doors open, even while enrollment dipped below 400. Robert Sherer, a history professor for 14 years beginning in 1975, recalls that he “got constantly in trouble with the dean by failing too many students. Every student they lost was a major financial hit.”

Heightening a sense of instability, a succession of five presidents passed through Wiley between 1986 and 2000. Lawns grew weedy. Buildings aged. In 2000, trustees recruited Haywood Strickland, president of Texas College in nearby Tyler, as president. He restored stability, but his tenure has not been completely smooth. In 2003, The Marshall News Messenger reported that despite an official biography that lists “doctoral training” at the University of Wisconsin, and publicly taking the title “doctor,” Mr. Strickland in fact has no earned Ph.D.
“I was unaffected by it,” Mr. Strickland said of the report, adding that he did not believe he had misrepresented himself.

The college has run deficits for much of his tenure — 2006 ended $1 million in the red — but administrators predict finishing the 2008 financial year in the black. There are plans to establish the campus’s first endowed chair, named after Mr. Tolson. The poet’s home, next to campus, now sports a sign in the yard advertising its place in history.

For his part, Mr. Washington had not previously heard of the debaters or even the college, but he said, “I’m aware of the strength of these historically black colleges, and what they’ve done for millions of African-American men and women over the years.” His son graduated from Morehouse College, which recently raised $118 million.

While historically black colleges constitute only 3 percent of American higher-education institutions, they graduate about 24 percent of all black college students. Some prefer a campus like Wiley, so personal that faculty members will track down a student who misses class. “To teach in schools like this demands some missionary-like spirit,” said Solomon Masenda, an English professor who joined the faculty almost 20 years ago. “You fall in love with it. I cannot explain it.”

Deborah Phillips credits the college with identifying her daughter Ashley’s strengths. Ashley Phillips arrived in Marshall unsure of what she might accomplish. Last month, Ms. Phillips was crowned Miss Wiley. By next year, she plans to be in medical school, with Wiley’s biology program as her foundation.

On a crisp November morning, her mother watched Homecoming paraders toss candy from convertibles on University Avenue. “Here,” Mrs. Phillips said, “you’re a student who dreams.”

5 comments:

Shelia said...

Some of the movie was filmed here in Louisiana. I used to pass by the movie set every week hoping to catch a Denzel siting. The school it was filmed at in Grand Cane didn't allow black students to attend back during that time period; so its a historical moment that it was filmed there. Even now, that same school only has I think about 1 maybe 2 black students attending.

Anyway, even if it wasn't filmed in my neck of the woods, I would be going to see it, because I love me some Denzel.

Gwyneth Bolton said...

I would hope that they get some money from the film to support the film. I know that Oprah is one of the film's producer's. It would be nice if she'd write a check to the school. But given the financial misspending situations that schools like Morris Brown and Barber Scotia have been accused of in the recent past, it is easy to see why some folks are a little leary about just giving money to the smaller HBCUs.

In any case, I want to see the film even though I know the racism is going to piss me off. I don't know if I'll go on opening day. I don't want to be angry on Christmas. But I'll probably go on opening weekend.

Gwyneth

Patricia W. said...

I didn't know about this film until Hubby announced last weekend that we're going to see it on Christmas Day. (Movies on Christmas is a family tradition because that was our first date.)

Shelia said...

I will be going the day after; only because I'll be busy visiting family on Christmas Day. I'll end up falling asleep in the theater by the time I get back to town from visiting folks...but I want it to get credit for the weekend, so that's why I'll be there the day after Christmas, even if I have to go by myself.

bettye griffin said...

Gee Shelia, if you lived up this way we could go see it together . . . or maybe I should say if you lived in Orlando, since that's where I'll be the day after Christmas!

I know what you mean about getting pissed, Gwyneth! I agree . . . keep it happy and calm Christmas Day.

Patricia, I didn't know about this movie myself until I read the article. Of course, I haven't even been able to get my husband to take me to see Denzel's last movie, the one where he plays drug lord Frank Lucas (although it snowed when we were going to go.)

Thanks for posting, all!