'The Great Debaters': Why Wasn’t History Good Enough?





Editor's Note: The daughter of one of the real-life debaters depicted in the movie "The Great Debaters" questions the decision to attribute real accomplishments to fictitious characters. Eleanor Boswell-Raine is the associate publisher of The Globe Newspapers.

I am the daughter of Hamilton Boswell, who was a member of the Wiley College debating team of 1935. I regret that my father’s history was twisted and that writers somehow didn’t think that the truth was enough.

He was so proud to have contributed his memories to the making of what he thought would be a representative account of his beloved alma maters, Wiley and the University of Southern California, his mentor Melvin Tolson, his debating team and the team’s triumph.

Through the years I’ve listened to people say that early American historians distorted the history of blacks. It was a tactic that contributed to the undermining of the accomplishments of blacks; it haunts us to this day.

In an interview with film critic Kam Williams after the opening of the film, Denzel Washington, when asked why he wanted to bring the story of "The Great Debaters" to the silver screen, said: “It’s history, that’s why I wanted to capture it. I said, ‘We can’t miss this.’ There’s a lot there, and we need to pass that on. These things need to be shared and celebrated.”

While the film, "The Great Debaters," produced by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo production company and actor/director Denzel Washington, successfully projects episodes of cruelty and blatant hatred against blacks by the white South of 1935, it holds up a shining example of a tiny black Texas college that produced one of the finest college debating teams of the time.

So the question is, why did its writers distort the Wiley College debating team’s history?

Here’s what is true:

Wiley College, in Marshall, Texas, is a real black college. Melvin Tolson was a brilliant professor who coached an outstanding debating team that competed and won against other black and white colleges.

James Farmer, a famous civil rights activist, was a junior member of the Wiley debating team. The year was 1935. Whites were lynching black people in the South. Fathers and mothers were humiliated in front of their children.

While on the road, Tolson and his debaters were traveling in a car when they encountered a crowd of white men, women and children who had lynched and mutilated a black man.

The Wiley debating team did compete and win a championship against a highly rated and revered university.

Professor Tolson did have leftist leanings, and one of the debater’s parents was concerned about how it would affect his son’s future. These are among the real facts.

Here’s what is untrue:

Perhaps one of the most damning distortions was the fictitious venue: the Wiley debating team did not debate at Harvard, it debated at the University of Southern California.

The team traveled west, not north, to debate a university not used to debating with black schools and not used to losing.

Three of the four debaters were fictional. The film’s writers took half of the names of authentic debaters and changed their last names. Hamilton Boswell became “Hamilton Burgess,” complete with the use of Boswell’s nickname, “Ham.” Henry Heights became “Henry Lowe.” There was no woman on the team in 1935. ...

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