The Great Debaters

Professor Theresa Vara-Dannen
Early College Experience at University High School of Science and Engineering
University of Connecticut

I. Writers


  1. Students will be able to cite evidence from a source to determine an author's purpose, intended audience, and major themes.
  2. Students will be able to develop criteria for judging the literary quality of a particular written work.
  3. Students will be able to prepare oral arguments using relevant evidence to defend a point of view.

The Great Debaters recounts the true story of the debate team at the historically black Wiley College in Texas in the 1930s. The team's faculty advisor, Melvin B. Tolson, is depicted in the film as a professor, a labor union activist, and a communist; his activities eventually lead to his arrest, forcing the team to function without his assistance in its triumphant debate at Harvard University. (In real life, Wiley defeated the University of Southern California, but the directors decided to change the school to add to the drama of the event. More information on the Wiley debate can be found here.) In the early twenty-first century, however, Tolson's name was largely unknown, and his poetry is his primary legacy.

Before seeing the film, students can best prepare by reading about the Harlem Renaissance and Langston Hughes. While the study of the Harlem Renaissance is common, few courses include the work of other lesser-known African American writers of the same era who happened to live outside the New York area. One of these is Tolson, and he is depicted in the film as promoting and reciting the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance writers. Students may read about Tolson, along with some of his work. Other great African American poets of the era are Robert Hayden, Sterling Brown, Gwendolyn Brooks, Owen Dodson, Margaret Walker, and Frank Marshall Davis. Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African-American Poetry edited by Jerry W. Ward Jr., is an excellent source of poetry of this era.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. After reading about several of the poets mentioned above, write an essay using their biographies to posit a theory as to why some of these poets, such as Langston Hughes, achieved fame and others are largely unknown today. Discuss whether the quality of their work was the deciding factor or whether other aspects of their lives affected their poetic legacy.
  2. After reading the work of the poets above, discuss how their literary work was informed by the historic events of 1930s and 1940s.
  3. Choose three of your favorite poems from the works of the poets mentioned above and develop criteria upon which to judge whether a particular poem merits a place in the pantheon of American literature. Then prepare a formal oral argument using relevant evidence to support your point of view.
  4. Many of the aforementioned poets were also academics who had achieved what some might view as a privileged life in a protected university environment. In what ways did their poetry reflect the experience of the average Depression-era African American?
  5. There has been much discussion in the literary world about whether the political can be poetic, or whether poetry best addresses the private and personal issues of love, loss, and relationships. Choose a political poem from the collection of one of the poets named above and take a position defending that poem's effectiveness as promoting political change. Specifically, what literary elements are key to its success?
  6. Choose a poem from any poet named above and determine the identity of their intended audience. Use literary evidence and specific literary devices such as metaphor, imagery, and diction to support your thesis.

Additional Material

  • Against the Odds: The Artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Amber Edwards, director. PBS, 1993.
  • Ferguson, Jeffrey Brown. The Harlem Renaissance: A Brief History with Documents (The Bedford Series in History and Culture) New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2007.
  • Sherman, Tony. "The Great Debaters," American Legacy (1997),
  • Ward, Jerry W., Jr., ed. Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African-American Poetry New York: Signet, 1997.

II. Historically Black Colleges and Universities


  1. Students will be able to create relevant visual social studies materials (e.g., maps, political cartoons, charts, Web pages) to support an argument made in an essay or oral report.
  2. Students will create multipurpose visuals to present information.
  3. Students will be able to devise a plan to resolve a contemporary issue and develop a proposal for implementation.
  4. Students will portray the attitudes reflected in a historical period using a variety of writing formats (eulogy, editorial, diary).
  5. Students will be able to prepare a research paper/project using primary and secondary sources and properly cite those sources.

Viewing the film The Great Debaters gives students a glimpse into the world of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), particularly Wiley College in the 1930s. In the film, Wiley is depicted as an island of sanity, striving, and learning in a hostile world of lynching and arbitrary humiliation of blacks by whites of all classes. In order to understand and appreciate some of the history of Wiley, students may read the African American Studies Center article on Wiley College. For an excellent overview, students can read about historically black colleges and universities, along with discussions on HBCUs and women. More information about other outstanding colleges may be gleaned from the following articles: Howard University, Morehouse College, Spelman College, Hampton Institute (Hampton University) , and Tuskegee Institute (Tuskegee University) . Additionally, for perspective on how politically liberal colleges and universities dealt with African American students, read the article on Oberlin College (overview) and the article on Oberlin and women.


  1. Create a map showing the Mason-Dixon Line and the locations and founding years of the historically black colleges and universities mentioned above. Then, using the evidence gleaned from the AASC and from your research, develop and discuss a theory as to why these colleges were founded in their particular times and places. Be sure to address the issue of why the ostensibly sympathetic North hosted so few black colleges.
  2. In contemporary educational circles, there is much discussion about the "achievement gap" between American ethnic groups. Research the "achievement gap" and devise a plan to resolve this issue that centers around finding a solution through historically black colleges and universities. Develop a step-by-step plan for the implementation of your proposal.
  3. Research one of the actual Wiley College debates; find a newspaper article, a debate announcement, or a debate transcript. What information does this primary document add to your knowledge of the Wiley debate team? In a short research paper, discuss your findings and properly cite your sources of evidence.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What is the significance of the founding philosophies of Tuskegee University and Howard University in the way these institutions grew and developed over time?
  2. Some people might argue that single-gender colleges perpetuate a different but equally pernicious form of segregation. Form a debate team to support or refute this statement using evidence from the articles cited above.
  3. Based on your readings above, analyze how a fictional student like Henry Lowe in The Great Debaters might view his education at Wiley College. Take into consideration what he says about his slave ancestry and the fact that he must take every other year off to pay his way through college. Then, in an editorial, discuss the overall impact of the historically black colleges on the African American community.

Further Reading

  • Lovett, Bobby L. America's Historically Black Colleges: A Narrative History, 1837–2009. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2011.
  • Ricard, Ronyelle Bertrand, and M. Christopher Brown II. Ebony Towers in Higher Education: The Evolution, Mission, and Presidency of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2008.
  • Roebuck, Julian B., and Komanduri S. Murty. Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Their Place in American Higher Education. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 1993.

III. Communism and African American Artists and Writers


  1. Students will be able to research a historic issue using relevant political, economic, cultural and historical evidence.
  2. Students will be able to develop criteria to evaluate alternative viewpoints on a contemporary issue.
  3. Students will be able to prepare oral arguments using relevant evidence to defend a point of view.

As stated above, the faculty advisor of the debate team, Melvin B. Tolson, is depicted in the film as a professor, a labor union activist, and a Communist; his activities eventually lead to his arrest, forcing his team to function without his assistance during the climactic debate at Harvard University. In addition, at one point in the film, a student resigns from the debate team because his parents have heard of Tolson's Communism.

Tolson's political activities were not unique for educated African Americans in this era. For background, the instructor should read The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930–1946. It is important to understand the political climate within which artists functioned and why their efforts to form unions and fight for fair labor practices often led to an examination of Communist thought. Additionally, the case of the Scottsboro boys mobilized members of the Communist Party, along with many others, to their defense. As a result, civil rights activists were brought into direct contact with Communists in their efforts to free the Scottsboro boys. Furthermore, the Communist philosophy of equality was especially appealing, given the racist climate of the time, but many African Americans began to rethink their leanings during the Soviet Stalinist regime.

For an excellent summary, students should read the essay on "Communism and African Americans" ; a more in-depth, personal look at the effect of the Communist philosophy on leading artists and writers of the era may be gleaned from reading about Paul Robeson, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison.

Another perspective on the activist career choices made by other members of the Wiley debate team is offered by the biographies of James Farmer Jr. and Henrietta Bell Wells. While they did not choose Communism as their philosophical route to freedom, they were both influential and committed in the cause of civil rights. These readings will help students appreciate the roles of alternative political philosophies in supporting the struggle for civil rights, along with the personal and financial consequences of taking unpopular political positions and the transformational nature of art in the pursuit of political change.

Finally, it is worth considering how modern scholars have connected the activism of the past with that of the present. For example, Jonathan Adams discusses the impact of the film in light of Barack Obama's victory in the 2008 presidential election.


  1. Form a debate team to debate the following issue: Communism supports a civil rights agenda more so than does a capitalistic democracy.
  2. Research the political, economic, and cultural consequences for Americans associating with Communists from the 1930s through the 1950s, especially taking into account the treatment of African Americans like Ralph Ellison and Paul Robeson. How and why did their treatment change over time?

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How did the union activities of Melvin Tolson at Wiley College reflect and augment his commitment to civil rights?
  2. Discuss how a poet like Tolson or novelists like Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright might advance civil rights through their art.
  3. Discuss the significance of the social climate in the 1920s and 1930s on writers living in Harlem versus that of writers living on the campuses of historically black colleges and universities throughout the nation.

Further Reading

  • Mullen, Bill, and Linkon, Sherry, eds. Radical Revisions: Rereading 1930s Culture. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1996.
  • Smethurst, James Edward. The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930–1946. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Solomon, Mark. The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917–1936. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.