Denzel Washington’s groundbreaking roles have led to Academy Award, Tony, and Golden Globe wins. Now the acclaimed actor and his family are winning praise from a Texas HBCU for a generous gift.
Washington, who’s married to actress/singer Pauletta Washington and has four adult offspring, recently announced the Denzel Washington Family Foundation has made the fourth $100,000 installment toward a $1 million commitment to Wiley College.
Founded in 1873, the historically Black college in Marshall, Texas is home of `The Great Debaters’—a team popularized in a 2007 film of the same name. Washington directed the movie and starred as Professor Melvin B. Tolson, a pioneering debate coach who organized the team in the 1920s and led students to a decade-long winning streak in the 1930s. He facilitated interracial collegiate debates during the segregated Jim Crow era that drew large crowds.
“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,” said Denzel Washington in a statement provided to ESSENCE. “We are honored to continue supporting the best and the brightest in the land and look forward to `The Great Debaters’ continuing to do what they do best: win.”
Located about 150 miles outside Dallas, Wiley College is named in honor of Bishop Isaac William Wiley, a minister, medical missionary and educator. The four-year, co-ed institution is affiliated with The United Methodist Church and educates students in a Christian environment. The UNCF member school has a student-body of about 800 people, most of whom are first-generation scholars. There’s an intentional focus on social good and leadership, touted in Wiley’s motto: “Go Forth Inspired.”
Washington has inspired not only as a two-time Oscar winner (The New York Times named him one of the 25 greatest actors of the 21st Century) and box-office giant, but as a philanthropist. The longtime spokesman for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America established the Denzel Washington Endowed Chair in Theatre with a $2 million gift to his alma mater, Fordham University, in 2011. He and his wife have also given scholarships to train medical students.
The Wiley donation will be used to recruit debate team members and provide them with scholarships. After an initial $1 million commitment in 2007, Washington’s family foundation has donated $100,000 annually over 10 years to revive the debate team, which dissolved after Tolson departed Wiley back in 1947.
Their financial largesse continued in 2018, and Washington visited the campus that same year to watch a debate competition. The nationally renowned debate team is now formally called the Melvin B. Tolson/Denzel Washington Forensics Society.
Wiley College president Dr. Herman J. Felton, Jr. expressed gratitude for Washington’s generosity to the institution. The relationship has spanned 15 years and counting.
“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,” he said in a statement.
While they took a hiatus from competing due to the pandemic, the team of 30 will resume competition this fall under the leadership of coach Caleb Williams. The Great Debaters have consistently won national competitions, including the prestigious Pi Kappa Delta national championships in 2014 and 2016.