Denzel Washington’s 2007 movie, “The Great Debaters,” chronicled the history of Wiley’s debate teams in the early to mid-1900s under the mentoring and coaching of Professor Melvin B. Tolson. And thanks to Mr. Washington’s $1 million gift to Wiley after the release of the movie, debate was reborn at the College.
Now, six years after its inaugural 2008-2009 season, the Melvin B. Tolson/Denzel Washington Forensics Society was delighted to spend a Saturday afternoon in the grand foyer of the Haywood L. Strickland Living Learning Center sharing with its benefactor all that it has accomplished, as evidenced by the display of approximately 100 trophies, a fraction of the more than 1,000 awards the team has earned over the years.
The awards are hard-won badges of honor reflective of outstanding accomplishments, including winning the 2014 Overall Sweepstakes Championship at the 101st Annual Pi Kappa Delta National Comprehensive Tournament.
The following year, at the 102nd Pi Kappa Delta Tournament, the team won the Robert Dewberry Sweepstakes Award for earning the most points over five years of competing at the tournament. Bittersweet victories both for this 21st century team – Dr. Tolson’s teams were not allowed to compete at this prestigious tournament.
So proud of his team that he took out his phone to take personal photos to document his visit, Washington told the students to “continue to strive for excellence and greatness.”
Junior Austin Ashford, winner of the team’s 2015 Most Valuable Performer award, gave one of his award-winning presentations for Washington at the gathering. Ashford said what most stood out to him about Washington’s visit was his charge to students to make a difference in the world and to pay it forward.
“His message perfectly aligns with everything we strive to do as a team and as Wiley students,” said Ashford. “His life of service gives us an outstanding example of how to be servant leaders.”
While the face-to-face meeting with Washington was a first for the team, it proudly sends regular updates to Washington and Washington regularly checks in with the team and encourages its continued success.
In recognition of his unyielding support, the Wiley College awarded Washington an honorary doctorate degree.
“This degree is being conferred because Mr. Washington has preserved the legacy of Professor Melvin B. Tolson and the Great Debaters,” saidJoseph L. Morale, vice president for student affairs at Wiley. “He has been a staunch supporter of historically black colleges, and for that we are deeply grateful.”