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Lincoln U.: Tolson Gave to Wiley Students What He Received Here

Lincoln University, a historically Black college in Pennsylvania, is on a crusade to claim Melvin B. Tolson as one of its own.

In recent weeks, Tolson, a graduate of Lincoln, has become a household name due to the success of the Oprah Winfrey-produced movie, “The Great Debaters.” In the movie, Tolson, who is played by Denzel Washington, is an English professor who leads a small debating team from historically Black Wiley College to victory against Harvard University. Lincoln officials say, however, that the movie omits the fact that Tolson’s passion for debating was a result of the education he received at the 154-year-old institution.

“I wasn’t disappointed, but it would have been nice to show the fact that Tolson was a graduate of Lincoln University and that he was a very active student who honed his debating skills during his years at Lincoln,” said Lincoln’s president, Dr. Ivory V. Nelson.

In an effort to seize on the popularity of “The Great Debaters,” Nelson added that Lincoln is launching a campaign to focus on Tolson’s legacy and experience at the university.

According to documents provided by Lincoln officials, Tolson studied theology and poetry, graduating with honors in 1923, and was editor-in-chief of the student newspaper and an active member of Lincoln’s debate team. Nelson said Lincoln faculty members are currently formulating strategies to re-establish enthusiasm for Lincoln’s existing debate team.

“We are going to try and see if we can develop much more competition among our fellow HBCUs in relation to debate. This gives us the opportunity to try to bring back this skill that was practiced so heavily during the 1920s and 1930s,” said Nelson, adding that he personally will lead the effort to form a formal debating society among neighboring institutions.

Tracey Hunter Hayes, associate professor and director of Lincoln’s library, said the university is also working to increase student participation in the Melvin B. Tolson Literary Society, which was founded in 1966 – the year Tolson died.

“The Tolson Society is a literary society that emphasizes the humanities, poetry and literature … it is essentially a celebration of what the students have learned during the year and a celebration of the production of their own poems as well,” Hunter Hayes said.

Dr. Gladys J. Willis, Lincoln’s dean of humanities and graduate studies, and Dr. Marilyn D. Button, chair of Lincoln’s department of English and Mass Communications, explained that, though the Tolson Society was traditionally geared toward English liberal arts majors, the university plans to open the Society to all students who are interested in honing their writing skills.

“We want to broaden it to include not only majors, but also non-majors,” Button said. “The fact that Tolson is a graduate of Lincoln just gives us an added opportunity to familiarize our students with his work and open up other literary doors.”

Hunter Hayes noted that some Lincoln faculty members are considering writing the producers of “The Great Debaters” to request that Tolson’s Lincoln background be included on the blurb written for the DVD.

“It would be reassurance that the world is recognizing what is happening here. We know that the very essence of what Tolson was giving his students (in the movie) is what the students at Lincoln get,” he said.

Nelson said Lincoln has been an educational haven for many icons such as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and writer and poet Langston Hughes but added that Tolson’s activism went seemingly unnoticed until the release of “The Great Debaters.”

“In many ways, the world is designed sometimes that you will not be recognized until after the work you did is done … it just took a long time for him (Tolson) to be added,” Nelson said. “And as we find these heroes of ours that have not been recognized in the past, it’s important that we do justice for them and recognize their efforts … we must make sure that, as these jewels and gems are discovered, we place them in their rightful place in history.”

–Dana Forde

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