Henrietta Bell Wells, 96; was on 'Great Debate' team

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mary Rourke
Los Angeles Times / March 17, 2008

LOS ANGELES - Henrietta Bell Wells, the first female on the debate team of Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, which rose to national prominence in the 1930s and inspired last year's movie "The Great Debaters," has died. She was 96.

Ms. Wells died Feb. 27 at a nursing home in Baytown, Texas, near Houston, according to news reports. The cause was not given. She was the last surviving member of the debate team she joined in 1930, according to reports.

Born Henrietta Pauline Bell on Jan. 11, 1912, in Houston, she was reared by her single mother. She later recalled growing up in the South when black shoppers weren't allowed to try on clothes in stores. Her family's home was searched by police after a race riot in Houston in 1917, she said in a 2007 interview with the Houston Chronicle.

Ms. Wells was valedictorian of her senior class at Phillis Wheatley High School in Houston. After graduating in 1929, she enrolled at Wiley College on a scholarship. The college had been founded soon after the Civil War by the Freedman's Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church to provide higher education for black Americans.

In 1930, her English professor, Melvin B. Tolson, invited Ms. Wells, a freshman, to join the debate team. Tolson was a noted poet and a keen debater who set the team on a 10-year winning streak.

"I was the only girl and the only freshman," Ms. Wells said of the team in an interview with the Houston Chronicle. "They didn't seem to mind."

It wasn't an easy commitment to make. Along with classes and debate practice, she supported herself by working at the Wildcat Inn, a campus hangout, and doing housekeeping work at a campus dormitory.

Tolson's teaching style was rigorous and testy, Ms. Wells recalled in a 2007 interview on ABC's "Good Morning America." He would walk into class, slam the door, and fire off a question. One she always remembered: "Bell, what is a verb?"

Before debates he gave Ms. Wells pointers on how to deliver her argument. "You've got to punch something in there to wake the people up," she recalled him telling her.

The Wiley Debate Team won contests against far more prominent and larger black colleges, including Tuskegee and Howard universities. The team broke new ground in 1930 when it took on law students from the University of Michigan, in what is said to be the first interracial college debate.

"We felt at the time that it was a giant step toward desegregation," Ms. Wells told the Houston Chronicle last year.

Neither side was declared a winner in that competition, she later recalled, but it opened the way to other interracial college debates.

Wiley scored its most famous victory in 1935 when the team beat the University of Southern California, the national debate champion.

Last year Tolson and the Wiley team were the subject of "The Great Debaters," with Denzel Washington as the inspirational coach. In the movie, the only woman on the team was based partly on Ms. Wells and played by actress Jurnee Smollett.

Mrs. Wells advised Washington on the movie, using her scrapbooks as visual aids. She urged him to play Tolson, something he at first was not inclined to do.

Washington called her "another grandma."

Ms. Wells stayed on the debate team for one year and then dropped out of the competition because she needed to earn more money to support herself.

After graduation she returned to Houston and worked as a social worker. She also taught in the Houston public school system.

She married the Rev. Wallace L. Wells. He died in 1987.

Ms. Wells had no immediate survivors.

Material from The New York Times was used in this obituary.

more stories like this

  • Email
  • Email
  • Print
  • Print
  • Single page
  • Single page
  • Reprints
  • Reprints
  • Share
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Comment
  • Share on DiggShare on Digg
  • Tag with Save this article
  • powered by
Your Name Your e-mail address (for return address purposes) E-mail address of recipients (separate multiple addresses with commas) Name and both e-mail fields are required.
Message (optional)
Disclaimer: does not share this information or keep it permanently, as it is for the sole purpose of sending this one time e-mail.