The year was 1931, and Oklahoma City University was about to make history in a way long forgotten ” until now. Wiley College of Marshall, Texas, a small black liberal arts college established by the United Methodist Church, was on its way to winning the 1935 national debate championship ” against the long odds of racism in Jim Crow America.
The story of Wiley’s talented debate team is now featured in a new movie titled “The Great Debaters,” directed by and starring Denzel Washington and produced by Oprah Winfrey. Washington plays the role of poet and professor Melvin B. Tolson, who coached the debate team to greatness, and encouraged the team’s only female member to join and become an accomplished debater. In the film version, she would later become a civil rights leader.
One of the indisputable facts should be of interest to every Oklahoman: Oklahoma City University was the first all-white Southern school to invite the all-back Wiley debate team to a match ” thus hosting the first interracial collegiate debate in the Southern United States.
The movie depicts that debate as occurring in a tent off campus, but in fact it took place at the Avery Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, located at 205 N. Geary. Who knows why the debate could not happen on campus, but those were different times, and the invitation alone was remarkable.
In the movie, the debate with OCU is about whether blacks should be allowed to enroll in state universities, but according to university records, the real debate was over free trade. OCU lost. In the film, half the white audience is shown walking out, but there is no way to know if this is what really happened, or whether the scene represents more Hollywood fiction.
As it turns out, the OCU connection to Wiley and the great debaters runs even deeper. The Rev. Robert Hayes Sr., a Wiley graduate and father of current Oklahoma United Methodist Bishop Robert Hayes Jr., once served as president of Wiley. Like many historically black colleges, the school had struggled for years, and had long ago lost its debate team. In 1971, the elder Hayes was sent by the bishop to, “Give it (Wiley) a decent funeral.”
But Hayes did everything in his power to keep the doors open, and now a movie has put Wiley back on the map. The movie also reminds a new generation of viewers, many of whom know nothing about debate, that the intellectual and rhetorical gifts demanded by the ancient art once constituted an honored place in higher education.
Ironically, the movie does not comply with the cardinal rule of debate: that one should always tell the truth, and use credible sources. Even so, the movie quite unexpectedly unearthed a long-forgotten moment in the history, not just of Wiley College, but of Oklahoma City University. OCU broke the color barrier in intercollegiate debate in 1931. As a faculty member at OCU, involved with the newly resurrected speech and debate team, this makes me enormously proud.
Wiley’s debate team is being restored thanks to a gift from Washington, and a corporate scholarship is forthcoming to endow a Melvin B. Tolson Scholarship Fund. Such is the power of cinema.
Even more so, such is the power of church-related institutions of higher education to break down racial barriers long before the civil rights movement. Therefore be it resolved: Oklahoma City University did the right thing. If Wiley will come back, we’ll throw a party for them ” on the campus this time.
Meyers is minister of Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City, and professor of rhetoric in the philosophy department at Oklahoma City University.