History Resets As ‘Great Debaters’ Return

October 23, 2008

OKLAHOMA CITY—Oklahoma City University and Wiley College of Marshall, Texas, will revisit a historical moment this weekend when the next generation of “The Great Debaters” returns for a friendly competition.

Not to let such a momentous occasion slip away, the two schools have partnered for a weekend-long list of activities, “The Great Debaters 2.0,” to remind its students and the public not only about the debate itself, but also about lessons learned since the racial tensions of the 1930s.
The 1931 debate between Wiley College and OCU was made famous by last year’s movie, The Great Debaters, starring and directed by Denzel Washington. The movie tells the story of a successful debate team from historically black Wiley College—and its charismatic debate coach, Melvin B. Tolson.
The team from Wiley dominated the university debating circuit, winning the national championship against the University of Southern California and losing only one time in 75 meetings over a 15-year stretch. (The movie version has a couple of instances in which history is embellished for the sake of drama—such as featuring Harvard, instead of USC, in the national championship meeting against Wiley.)
Oklahoma City University’s role in the historical scheme of things is that it was the “first inter-racial debate ever held in the history of the South,” as written by Tolson in an achievements report to his school. The two schools plan to use historical significance and Hollywood exposure during “The Great Debaters 2.0” events.
“We want to take advantage of some of this attention and use it to broaden the appeal,” said Clinton J. Normore, director of multicultural student affairs. “We can use it to educate people about … the history of that debate and the events surrounding it, but also to restore our relationship with Wiley College.”
The university will host the debate on campus, which differs from the historical version of events, but not for the reasons portrayed in the movie. Whereas the original debate was held at Avery Chapel off campus, the movie shows it taking place in a large tent. The movie indicates the off-campus tent location was chosen because black people were not allowed on campus, while OCU Archivist Christina Wolf said no evidence has been found to support that theory. On the contrary, Maggie Ball, vice president of church relations for OCU, noted that the fact the university invited the Wiley team shows that OCU was ready to buck the racism trend.
“The historical fact that Oklahoma City University, as a white Southern institution, stood against the traditions of the time to invite Wiley College, a historically black college, to debate will certainly be celebrated,” Ball said. “As two institutions of higher education, which are both connected with the United Methodist Church, they were practicing ‘Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors’ long before this became the standard for our denomination.”
In a sense, the modern version will be closer to the historical version; the debate will take place in a chapel, this time at Bishop Angie W. Smith Chapel. The topic is set as: “Resolved: When the values are in conflict, activism should take priority over social stability.”
Wiley College is likewise excited to renew a friendship with OCU.
“This is a special weekend,” said Dr. Joseph L. Morale, Wiley’s vice president of student affairs and chair of the school’s planning committee. “The history between these two great Methodist institutions was lost before the film. The film has allowed us to reconnect and [has allowed] for us to discover that Oklahoma City had the courage, during America’s turbulent past, to engage this small ‘Negro’ college in an historic debate during the backdrop of the ‘Jim Crow South.’ We now seek to honor our past and forge a new future as two outstanding examples of what can happen when we focus on the things that unite us, rather than those that divide us.”
The colleges are organizing other events to go along with the debate. About 400 high school students were on campus at OCU to watch “The Great Debaters” during a special showing Oct. 15.
There also will be men’s and women’s basketball contests between the two schools and a special worship service at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church downtown. The service will feature an opening concert by the St. Luke’s Chancel Choir and instrumentalists, and the OCU and Wiley College choirs. Bishop Robert E. Hayes, Jr. will deliver the sermon. The Rev. Wendy Lambert of St. Luke’s noted that Hayes, the area bishop for the United Methodist Church, is the son of a former Wiley College president who helped the school navigate through difficult financial times.
“At that time Robert E. Hayes, Sr. was sent to Wiley College to give it a few years and then shut it down with dignity,” Lambert said. “Hayes, however, did not want to shut down Wiley College and instead brought it back to being a thriving community.”
Normore hopes “The Great Debaters 2.0” events will help promote a healthy rivalry between both schools’ debate programs, with the possibility of meetings on a regular basis. Wiley College, which is about a six-hour drive from Oklahoma City, has been without a debate team for several years. However, Washington, the star of the movie, donated $1 million to get the program reinstituted.
“The movie spawned interest in redeveloping the relationship we had with Wiley College,” Normore said, “and we’ve done that to some extent. There may be some exciting announcements made during this event.”