A Sidebar "To The Great Debaters"

Thursday, January 17th 2008, 11:17 pm
By: News On 6

A Tulsa debate champ is the inspiration for a blockbuster.  "The Great Debaters" is based on the true story of an all black debate team that won the national championship back in the 1930s.  The News On 6's Ashli Sims reports the film has all the makings of a Hollywood fairy tale:  an underdog team perseveres through adversity and goes on to glory.  While the movie is fictional, the great debaters were real, and one of them grew up in Tulsa.

This is the story of Melvin Tolson and his great debaters.  In the Jim Crow South of the 1930s, a time when blacks were considered inferior, Tolson trained his legendary debaters to be superior.  They went toe to toe and word for word with students from the most prestigious white universities of the day and won.

"It was a sight to see and I thought it was a great movie," said 17-year-old Tiara Miller.

But, it's not just a movie to Marijo Copeland Grissom.

"I really thought 'The Great Debaters.' All I could see was Uncle Hobart," said Marijo Copeland Grissom, niece of Hobart Jarrett.

Grissom's uncle, Hobart Jarrett, was part of Wiley College's 1935 championship debate team, the team depicted in the movie.

Jarrett grew up in Tulsa, survived the 1921 race riots, and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School at the age of 16.

Grissom calls her uncle larger than life, but she didn't know he was a part of history until he died in 2005.  While she discovered his role on that championship team, the movie did not.

"And I really was thinking, well, they left him out of the movie. How could they leave his character out of the movie?  He was the great debater!" said Marijo Copeland Grissom.

The great debate over Denzel Washington's movie doesn't end there.  The big screen version takes creative license with some of the facts.  For example, in reality the Wiley debaters never went to Harvard.  And, there was no woman on the championship team.

Despite those liberties, the Great Debater's niece can't argue with one fact.

"It was an excellent movie.  Just an excellent movie," said Marijo Copeland Grissom.

There are several other Oklahoma ties to the story of The Great Debaters.  The coach Melvin Tolson, played by Denzel Washington in the movie, taught at Langston University.  Tolson's son became the first black faculty member at the University of Oklahoma.