When the light at University Avenue is green, drivers can pass Wiley College without a glance. There was a time, however, when this small black liberal arts college here caught the attention of a nation: in the 1930s, Wiley’s polished team of debaters amassed a series of victories over white competitors that stunned the Jim Crow South….
On Dec. 25, “The Great Debaters” will appear in theaters with Denzel Washington as its director and star, and Oprah Winfrey as producer. The film depicts Wiley’s most glorious chapter: 1935, when the black poet and professor Melvin B. Tolson coached his debating team to a national championship.
What a tragedy that this bastion of black excellence fighting the good fight in the depths of Jim Crow so neared extinction that it’s faculty has had to accept unpaid furloughs and seen its student body dwindle to only 400. What a cruel irony that the very civil rights victory it helped bring about now spells it’s own doom as black students opt for newly integrated educational opportunities. Read the Times article for a gloomy update on the slow death of the historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) which produced the greatest black American minds to date. Integration is here to stay, but at what cost? Perhaps the relevance of even trying to maintain the HBCU system is today’s great debate.