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‘Great Debater’ Wells Remembered as Spiritual, Passionate

Henrietta Bell Wells, the only woman on the 1930 Wiley College team that took part in the nation’s first interracial collegiate debate, was remembered Sunday as a deeply spiritual person whose presence moved others to be quiet and listen.

Wells died Feb. 27 in Baytown. She was 95.

Wells was the last surviving member of the team portrayed in last year’s movie, “The Great Debaters.”

The movie, starring Denzel Washington, focused on Melvin Tolson’s success leading an underdog debate team at a small, southern, historically black college in the mid-1930s. Founded in 1873, Wiley is in east Texas, about 40 miles from Shreveport, La.

“She really brought to the debate team something she already had,” Margaret Griggs, a sorority sister and friend for more than 30 years, said Sunday at a memorial service. “She was simply someone you listened to. She had that way about her.”

About 100 friends, spanning nearly a century in age, gathered for the service at St. James Episcopal Church, where Wells was an active member for 40 years. Her husband, Wallace, died in 1987. They had no children.

In the Golden Globe-nominated film, Washington portrayed the hard-driving Tolson, who came to Wiley in 1924 to teach English and speech and led the school’s debaters to national victories against both black and white teams.

Tolson, whose style was described as intimidating and inspiring, chose Wells as a member of the team during her freshman year. She accepted despite a hectic schedule of studies and three jobs.

In an interview with the Houston Chronicle last year, Wells said the boys “didn’t seem to mind” her status as the lone girl and freshman on the squad. She also noted that because Tolson had the team so well prepared for competition, its members were never intimidated.

Wells debated for only a year but was a member of the team that broke the color barrier in 1930 at a competition in Chicago.

Academics and success were common themes throughout Wells’ life. She was valedictorian of her high school class, taught in public schools in Gary, Ind., New Orleans and Houston after college, and served as dean of women at Dillard University in New Orleans.

She was compassionate and devoted to her faith, said longtime friend Edward Cox, who lived near Wells and drove her to church on Sundays when she was no longer able.

Speaking at the service, Cox said an example of Wells’ faith was a comment she made to a friend only days before she died: “It’s time for a new beginning.”

Cox said he spoke Saturday to Jurnee Smollett, who portrays the female debater in the movie, and she has committed to help fund a scholarship at Wiley in Wells’ and her own mother’s name. Smollett hopes to raise $2 million for the fund, Cox said.

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