An argument worth having

In 1935, TCU Forensics became the first all-white debate team from a university in the South to host historically black Wiley College on its campus.

Wiley's Forensic team lost only one contest from 1930-1940. Hobart Jarrett and Cleveland Gay, Wiley College forensic veterans, said that they experienced no racism before, during or after the debate at TCU in 1935. (Photo courtesy Fort Worth, Texas magazine)

An argument worth having

In 1935, TCU Forensics became the first all-white debate team from a university in the South to host historically black Wiley College on its campus.

TCU’s 1935 football season was a standout. Even though the team failed to defeat SMU in the so-called “The Game of the Century,” the Horned Frogs took on the LSU Tigers in the 1936 Sugar Bowl and won a muddy, 3-2 victory.

But in the spring semester of 1935, TCU embarked on what would become an even bigger historical moment.

Dr. C. Allen True formed the new Frogs Forensics Fraternity, and its original 12 members wasted no time in challenging schools around Texas to debate. The team’s roster included John Bailey, Edith Blakeway, Byron Buckeridge, Leonard Kirkegaard, Dorothy Lewis, Hastings Pannill, Harry Roberts, Mamie Snodgrass, J.B. Trimble, Julius Lile and Charles Weaver. President W.A. Welsh led the team.

Early in the spring of 1935, the Forensics Frogs debated in Waco and Abilene. They participated in the Pi Kappa Delta Provincial Tournament in Waxahachie, sponsored by the national forensic organization that governed collegiate debate competition.

In March 1935, the fledgling Frogs forensics team invited Wiley College’s powerhouse debaters to the TCU campus. The historically black college formed its forensics society in 1924, but Pi Kappa Delta, the all-white national forensics organization, was segregated and did not permit non-white schools to participate in its tournaments and competitions.

For Wiley’s champion debaters competing in the Jim Crow era, getting around the country for their engagements was a challenge.

Wiley’s renowned coach, Professor Melvin B. Tolson, formed Alpha Pi Omega to serve as the debate circuit for historically black colleges, which included schools such as Bishop, Fisk, Howard and Morehouse. Under this system, Tolson could schedule Wiley to debate white colleges but only as unofficial, no-decision events.

In one of Wiley’s first debates with a white college, the Marshall, Texas, undergraduate team competed against law students at the University of Michigan. The 1930 event was held at a large black-owned theater in Chicago because white-owned theaters prohibited racially mixed audiences at their venues. The first white college that debated Wiley in the South was the University of Oklahoma. Again, the debate occurred at an off-campus location.

By 1935, Wiley’s debaters had become such a phenomenal force that few colleges (black or white) dared to challenge them. One of the college’s stars was Dr. James Farmer Jr. The young debater later would become a civil rights activist. As national director of CORE, or Congress of Racial Equality, Farmer was the moving force behind the 1961 Freedom Rides that led to the desegregation of interstate transportation.

A Wiley team member who debated at TCU was Hobart S. Jarrett. He was a survivor of the 1921 racial conflict in the Greenwood black business district of Tulsa, Okla. that claimed hundreds of African-American lives, left thousands more homeless and destroyed 35 city blocks.

After graduation from Wiley with a degree in English, Jarrett earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. from Syracuse University. Jarrett taught at Langston University, Bennett College and Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.


The Forensic Frogs Fraternity had 12 members. Seen here are four members: (top, left to right) Byron Buckeridge, Edith Blakeway; (bottom, left to right) J.B. Trimble, Mamie Snodgrass. (Photo courtesy Fort Worth, Texas magazine)

The Wiley debate team that TCU faced in 1935 would become known as “The Great Debaters.” In a 2007 Hollywood film about the legendary team, Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington starred as the forceful professor and debate coach Tolson.

For Wiley’s champion debaters competing in the Jim Crow era, getting around the country for their engagements was a challenge. Traveling by car was an endeavor taken with great caution. Staying on back roads, the team let its lightest-skinned classmates drive so the dark-skinned ones could duck down in their seats in dangerous areas. Finding places to stay and places to eat in the “whites only” hotels and restaurants, on a shoestring budget, was almost always difficult.

But the TCU-Wiley debate was a historic event, worthy of media coverage. A March 21, 1935 Fort Worth Star-Telegram headlined “Team at T.C.U. Debates Negroes.” The story reported that “able negro debaters from Wiley College” engaged a Texas Christian University team, and the I.M. Terrell Negro High School chorus and quartet performed. Because the debate was not sanctioned by any collegiate forensics organization, “there was no judges’ decision.”

In an August 1935 story under the headline “Adventures in Interracial Debate” in The Crisis, the NAACP’s monthly magazine, Jarrett reported that the Wiley team “shattered precedent several months ago by meeting Texas Christian University at Fort Worth, Tex., on the campus of the latter. No race riots were reported.”

Jarrett said the TCU encounter was one of his favorite debate experiences, second only to winning the contest against the University of Southern California. In the Crisis article, he wrote that the Wiley team experienced no traces of racism at TCU, before, during, or after the debate. Jarrett recalled that the Horned Frog team rushed across the stage at the end of the debate to congratulate Wiley team members. The TCU Skiff, however, reported that “a section of the auditorium will be set off for negroes.”

On Jan. 27, 2015, TCU Forensics met the Wiley debaters in the Julius S. Scott Sr. Chapel on the black college’s campus. TCU debaters Donald Griffin and Shelby Whitson debated Wiley’s Benjamin Earl Turner and Jesus Cardenas. This time, the Frogs were triumphant on the issue: Resolved: Violence is a justified response to political oppression.

As for TCU’s 1935 team, Bailey, Pannill and Roberts went on to practice law. Welsh became a Disciples of Christ pastor, seminary president and educator. Kirkegaard became a Unitarian Universalist minister.

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