'Great Debater' Henrietta Bell Wells dies at 96

March 12, 2008

Henrietta Pauline Bell Wells, the last surviving member of the 1930 Wiley College debate team that participated in the first interracial collegiate debate in the United States, died on February 27 in Baytown, Texas. She was 96.

Wells, a longtime member of St. James' Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, was the only woman and freshmen of the Wiley College debate team coached by Melvin B. Tolson. Wiley College was a small liberal arts college in Marshall, Texas, founded a half century earlier by the Methodist Episcopal Church to educate "newly freed men." The team's story was portrayed in the 2007 movie "The Great Debaters."

In a recent Episcopal Life Online interview, Wells said she urged Academy-award winning actor Denzel Washington to star as Tolson in the movie. "He [Washington] just wanted to direct the movie," Wells said. "But I told him he was perfect for the part of Mr. Tolson -- and if he wasn't the star, he would lose a lot of people."

She advised Washington on the movie, using her scrapbooks as visual aids. He called her "another grandma."

Wells was born on the banks of Buffalo Bayou in Houston on January 11, 1912, and raised by a hard-pressed single mother from the West Indies.

She did not debate in high school but was valedictorian of her class. She earned a modest scholarship from the Y.M.C.A. to go to Wiley, Episcopal Life reported.

She debated for only one year, because of the need to work for money. She kept up with drama, which Tolson also coached. After graduating from college, she returned to Houston, where she met Wallace Wells and married. He was a church organist and later an Episcopal minister. She worked as a teacher and social worker.

Her advice to today's college students was straightforward: "Learn to speak well and learn to express yourself effectively."

Her husband passed away in 1987. There are no immediate survivors.

Related Topics: