Denzel Washington plays Melvin B. Tolson. In 1947, the country of Liberia named Tolson their Poet Laureate. Most of Tolson's poetry was published in Atlantic Monthly magazine. Tolson had several books of poetry printed. He was also a distinguished columnist for the Washington Tribune.
Tolson grew up in Kansas City, Mo. He eventually earned his master's degree from Columbia University. However, most of his education was received at Fisk University in Tennessee and Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.
The film The Great Debaters focuses on Tolson's life at Wiley College in east Texas where he taught English and Speech. His debate team famously defeated the University of Southern California. In the movie, Denzel Washington substitutes USC for Harvard University.
Wiley College was established in 1873 in Marshall, Texas. It is currently one of 114 historically black colleges in the United States. A historically black college is any school established before 1964 for the sole purpose of promoting higher education for African-Americans. Delaware State University in Dover and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore are two such institutions on Delmarva.
The Methodist Episcopal Church organized Wiley College, specifically to educate freed slaves following the Civil War. One of Wiley College's most famous professors was James L. Farmer, Sr., who was a deacon for the same church. Farmer, a theologian, was noted for being the first African-American in Texas to earn a doctorate.
Dr. Farmer was born in North Carolina in June 1886, the son of slaves. He studied in Florida. He's also known after graduating there for having walked from Jacksonville to Boston, Mass., all on foot, all by himself where he received his Ph.D. He read six languages, including Aramaic, French, German, Greek, Hebrew and Latin. He started teaching at Wiley in 1919 and ended his teaching career some 30 years later. Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker (Last King of Scotland) portrays Dr. Farmer in The Great Debaters.Dr. Farmer's son, James L. Farmer, Jr. graduated from Wiley College with a bachelor's in chemistry. He studied divinity at Howard University, another school where his father taught. He declared himself a pacifist during World War II. He co-founded the Congress of Racial Equality, becoming a civil rights activist, helping to organize sit-ins and freedom rides, which were integrated bus rides into segregated areas. In 1998, President Clinton awarded Farmer, Jr. the Medal of Freedom, an honor shared with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. Seventeen-year-old actor Denzel Whitaker portrays Farmer Jr. in The Great Debaters.