Irenic Thoughts

Irenic. The word means peaceful. This web log (or blog) exists to create an ongoing, and hopefully peaceful, series of comments on the life of King of Peace Episcopal Church. This is not a closed community. You are highly encouraged to comment on any post or to send your own posts.


Episcopalian Great Debater

Henrietta WellsAn article in Episcopal Life has 95-year old Henrietta Wells reflecting on her life and the movie, The Great Debaters, which was based on her college debate team. The life-long Episcopalian and wife of an Episcopal priest was the only freshman and the only female on the debate team. In the article she recalls,
Although growing up during the Jim Crow era was a challenge, Wells said she encouraged Washington to play down racial prejudice in "The Great Debaters." She remembers state troopers raiding her home in 1917 to look for black soldiers during race riots in Houston but said the debate team was more motivated to please their coach, "rather than a race issue."

"We worked hard and we weren't intimidated," she said....

The team practiced at the coach's home several times a week during debating season and since she was the only female on the team, the college's president arranged for a chaperone during tournaments.

"We would sit on the floor in the Tolson's living room and discuss topics," she said. "Mr. Tolson was very serious and very strict; there were no frills, everything had to be correct. It was fun being the only girl on the team, but it was a lot of hard work."

The Wiley team first beat almost every black college and eventually broke the color line, facing white law students from the University of Michigan. The team, Henry Heights, Hobart Jarrett and Wells lost only one debate out of 75 leading to the national 1935 championship.

They triumphed against the national champions, the University of Southern California, with topics of civil rights and freedom of speech at a time when lynching was frequent in the deep South.
She also takes credit for encouraging Denzel Washington, who was set to direct but not act, to play the part of her debate coach. She told him that he was the perfect Mr. Tolson and his acting in the film would cause more people to see the movie. Mrs. Wells was right. The full text of the article is online here Henrietta Wells remembers well 'The Great Debaters'—she was one of them.


  • At 1/16/2008 4:25 PM, Anonymous whatsapastoralresident said…

    I took the youth of King of Peace to see this movie last week. It was a powerful experience for most of us, and it was such a great lesson to see these people stand up in the face of fear and do what was right.

    At the end of the movie, when they ran the blurb saying that it was based on a true story, I felt cheated... cheated because we never covered this story in American History or Ethics. It took the people of Hollywood to bring this to light.

    However, in my own reflections, that may be a point of the movie. It was a statement of the times-- the 1930's Jim Crow South-- that something powerful and good could come out of a small "Negro" college in Texas. It reminded me of the New Testament question about Jesus, "can anything good come out of Nazareth?" (Jn 1:46) If we as Christians answer that with a "yes," we must also look for more yes-es to other unexpected places in life.

    Since becoming an Episcopalian, I have tried to learn to see the smaller sacraments in life-- not just how God works through bread and wine, but how God works in other ways and places we may not always expect. I saw God work in a Hollywood movie theater with eight teenagers, and as I am sitting here on a cold, rainy South Georgia afternoon-- expecting nothing-- I am reminded to keep looking for God... not just in the unexpected places, but especially in the unexpected places.

    peace, Jay

  • At 1/16/2008 9:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Jay, good words. I have enjoyed reading and hearing about your time and experience with KoP.

    I'd like to get in touch with you sometime.

    (just so you don't think I'm creepy, I ate lunch with you and Frank when you first arrived in Camden!)

    Jim Morrow

  • At 1/17/2008 6:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Jay, it is most exciting to always expect the unexpected with our incredible God of all the impossibles! I am always amazed (shouldn't be) at how incredible God works with, in, and through all things and people.


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