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Henrietta Bell Wells: An Unintimidated Debater for Racial and Gender Equality

by Erik Fogel | Oct 11, 2017 9:00:00 AM |

Henrietta Bell Wells


"I had to use my common sense." - Henrietta Bell Wells



The first woman to participate in the first interracial collegiate debate in the United States celebrates a birthday this month. Born in Texas on October 11, 1912, Henrietta Pauline Bell was the daughter of a single West Indian mother who instilled the importance of education in her daughter.  Taking this lesson to heart, Mrs. Wells rose to become valedictorian of her class at Phyllis Wheatley High School. Her academic prowess won her a small scholarship from the Y.M.C.A. to historically all-black Wiley College in 1929.


In the biographical drama The Great Debaters starring Denzel Washington, the character of Samantha Booke is loosely based on the life of Mrs. Wells. While a freshman at Wiley she attended the class of famed poet Melvin T. Tolson, played in the film by Washington, who was impressed with her quick wit and ability to improvise when put on the spot. These skills combined with her disciplined hard work won her a spot on the team.


In her hometown paper The Houston Chronicle, Mrs. Wells explained that she faced many obstacles to success both at home and at school. She worked three jobs on campus in addition to her classroom load and debate team responsibilities. And in the era of Jim Crow, she was subject to a search of her home during the 1918 Camp Logan Riots protesting police treatment of black soldiers at a training camp for WWI soldiers. She was also forced to take a literacy test when she registered to vote, which was designed to ensure that black registrants did not pass. Growing up, she remembers being barred from trying on clothes in segregated stores.


Yet she persevered despite these systemic injustices. In the 2008 New York Times article entitled Henrietta Bell Wells, a Pioneering Debater, Mrs. Wells said that all their hard work and practice made members of the original 1930 Wiley Debate Team "unintimidated" by their opponents. At their first scheduled interracial debate with the University of Michigan, the Chicago crowd was standing room only. Although the debate was set up as a nondecision in which neither team was declared a winner, the team broke down racial and gender barriers that day which set a new standard of conduct for universities across the country.


The Wiley Debate Team went on a 10-year winning streak, highlighted by their 1935 win over the national champions at the University of Southern California. Mrs. Wells only participated on the team for one year due to her financial responsibilities, but utilized the skills she learned from her experience to build a successful professional career. She married after college and become a teacher, social worker, and was instrumental in the building of St. Augustine's Episcopal Church in Gary, Indiana. 


Mrs. Wells was the last surviving member of the first Wiley Debate Team, with friends claiming that she never gave up love of a good - and well-researched - argument. Her decision to stand up with her voice, intellect, and courage helped propel forward college integration on campuses throughout the country. 


With persistence and focus, you can use your voice to open new doors for women and create a path of progress that moves communities forward. Debate helps you to be the change that you wish to see in the world.


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