Denzel Washington Family Foundation Commits $1 Million to HBCU Debate Team

By: Alyssa Wilson

The Denzel Washington Family Foundation has pledged a $1 million commitment to support students on the debate team at Wiley College.  

The HBCU in Marshall, Texas, was highlighted in the 2007 movie The Great Debaters. Washington directed the film and played Professor Melvin B. Tolson, the school’s legendary debate team coach who led them on a 10-year winning streak during the 1930s. Tolson also helped to pioneer interracial debates at the collegiate level during the Jim Crow era, Wiley College reported.  

“Supporting the next generation of brilliant minds in the art of debate at Wiley College will open so many doors of opportunity for these students during college, career, and beyond,” Washington said.  

The foundation initially made the $1 million commitment back in 2007, donating $10,000 per year for a decade to help revive the debate team, which fell apart after Tolson left in 1947.  

RELATED: First Black Girl Duo Wins Harvard’s International Debate Competition 

The 10-year commitment was renewed in 2018, and funds are being used to recruit debate team members and give them scholarships. “We are grateful for the Washington family’s generosity for 15 years and counting to Wiley College’s phenomenal debate team, which, because of this support, can live out our motto to ‘Go forth inspire,'” Wiley College President Dr. Herman J. Felton said.  

“Being a dominant force as home of The Great Debaters makes us a very attractive option for those skilled in debate, and this financial support further amplifies the benefits of becoming a Wiley debate scholar,” Felton added.  

The HBCU’s renowned debate team is now called the Melvin B. Tolson/Denzel Washington Forensics Society. The 30-member team has won numerous competitions, including the prestigious Pi Kappa Delta national championship in 2014 and 2016. The team will resume competing this fall under the leadership of coach Caleb Williams.  

Recent graduate Jaylon Bolden received $80,000 in scholarships during his time at Wiley and said it was God’s plan for him. “I was a part of a legacy that was so much bigger than I could ever imagine,” he said. “Traveling the country to compete on behalf of my college, being a leader on campus, and having it paid for by Mr. Washington, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.” 

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