An 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