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Denzel Washington starred in

Image courtesy of Harpo Films

Denzel Washington starred in "The Great Debaters," a movie about a 1935 championship team from United-Methodist related Wiley College in Texas.

Produced by United Methodist Communications

Denzel Washington and Forrest Whittaker talk about the value of historically black colleges in a 2007 exclusive video interview.

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Denzel Washington continues support of black colleges


By Fran Coode Walsh
February 9, 2018

For the second time, one of Hollywood's most famous leading men has pledged $1 million to support  United Methodist-related Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. The historically black school will receive another gift from Denzel Washington, who wants to increase awareness about the value of debate education.

Washington acted in and directed the 2007 release “The Great Debaters” about the outstanding 1935 debate team from Wiley. The fictional film focuses on four young debaters and their mentor, Melvin Tolson, who taught at the college and coached the champion team. Washington stars as Tolson, a poet and author. When the film was released, the actor made a $1 million gift to fund the re-launching of the long dormant debate program.

Now known as the Melvin B. Tolson/Denzel Washington Forensics Society, the Wiley team has earned more than 3,000 awards and won competitions that Tolson’s teams were not allowed to enter. In 2017, Wiley College formed the HBCU Speech and Debate League which currently includes 18 schools.

Then and now

In 2007, had an exclusive interview with Washington during which he addressed the significance of black colleges for African Americans in the early 20th century.

"It was the first time they got an opportunity to get a college education," the actor said.

"I think these professors and the founding fathers of these schools understood that importance. They knew that it gave these young people more options.  We were in the middle of the Depression, so your options were education, or sharecropping or unemployment."

Visionaries for a freed people

The first historically black college west of the Mississippi River, Wiley was founded in 1873 to prepare newly emancipated people for the future.

Oprah Winfrey, whose Harpo Films produced the movie, calls both the church school and Tolson visionaries. "Here is this little college ... in the rural South in the 1930s, where you had to be there to even begin to understand what it was like to be a person of color, in a land that thought you were invisible and thought that your work really didn't matter," Winfrey said in a videotaped promotional message to media outlets.

One of Washington's costars in the film, Forest Whitaker, was born near Wiley College. He wanted movie viewers to appreciate the relevance of historically black colleges. "Unfortunately when you go to (public schools) ... a lot of the accomplishments of people of color ... aren't really shown," he explained. He also urged young people to consider attending historically black schools. "It's not to isolate ourselves. It's just an opportunity for youth to embrace your heritage and your ancestry and feel your power so that you can be a part of this world in a strong way."

Preserving the legacy

During a January 2018 awards ceremony for the first Historically Black Colleges and Universities Speech and Debate Championship Tournament, Washington was inducted into the newly formed HBCU Forensics Hall of Fame. That was when the two-time Academy award winner announced a new pledge of $1 million to Wiley.

Dr. Haywood L. Strickland, President and CEO of Wiley College thanked Washington for his continued support. "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."

Learn more about the United Methodist Black College Fund.

*Walsh is Director of Member Communications, at United Methodist Communications. You can reach her at 615-742-5458.