http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/5398684.html Great Debater overcame odds to bust barriers The team's sole woman and last survivor grew up in the Fourth Ward The Great Debaters, opening in theaters on Christmas Day, tells the story of the triumph of underdogs. It is also Henrietta Bell Wells' story. Born in Houston's Fourth Ward on the banks of Buffalo Bayou and raised by a struggling single mother from the West Indies, Wells became the only female member of the 1930 debate team from Wiley College who participated in the first collegiate interracial debate in the United States. She is the last surviving member of the 1930s team coached by Melvin B. Tolson. But for Wells, her involvement in the real life events that inspired the movie that stars Denzel Washington was just about living. "I was just lucky, that's what I think," the 95-year-old Wells said at the Houston facility where she now lives. "I just thought I was living my life. I don't think we thought we were doing any great job. We were in the debate team for fun, just doing our best." Wells met Tolson, who would later become a role model throughout her college career, in freshman English. Hectic balancing act He talked her into trying out for the debate team. Reluctant, she took the stage, stood behind the podium and read for him. Satisfied with her reading, Tolson put her on the team. "I told him I don't know anything about debating and I don't have any money to take off from class to be on the debate team," Wells said. "I was the only girl, and I was the only freshman. They (the boys) didn't seem to mind me." The schedule was hectic. She had to make night practices in addition to attending her day classes, all while working three jobs on campus. She worked at the Wildcat Inn, a student hangout, and did housekeeping in the dorm. Life for a young black woman during the Jim Crow era presented Wells plenty of challenges. She remembers her home being searched during the Camp Logan Riots of 1918, being unable to try on clothes in stores and failing a voter registration test in Louisiana. The family didn't have much money, but Wells was always a good student, finishing as valedictorian at Phyllis Wheatley High School. Her acumen for learning earned a scholarship to attend Wiley. Even with the scholarship, she had to work for her upkeep. During her time on the debate team, her friends covered her shifts while she traveled with the team. Her need to work eventually led Wells to leave the team. Still a debater Friends say that Wells, however, maintained that debating spirit. "If you listen to her, you can hear the debater," said Glenice Como, a lay minister at St. James Episcopal Church where Wells is a member. "She will hold her ground with you. If she thinks she hasn't made her point, she'll do her research." There are those who won't forget what Wells and others from the era contributed to breaking down barriers for black debaters. Texas Southern University debate coach Thomas F. Freeman called Tolson's decision to include a woman on his team courageous during a time when a woman's role was limited. Barbara Jordan was the first woman to travel with the TSU team in 1954. Freeman recalled a time when TSU debaters were not allowed to stay in certain hotels or eat in restaurants when traveling to compete. "Someone has to be courageous enough to become the first," said Freeman. "I hope they (students) get a sense of history from it and realization of the problems faced by young people who wanted to forge ahead." Wells recalled that the team went up against law students from the University of Michigan in Chicago during that interracial debate. She once wrote of that experience: "It was a non-decision debate, but we felt at the time that it was a giant step toward desegregation." She recalled that the judge was quoted in a newspaper as having said that the two teams were evenly matched, an idea she scoffs at. "You're talking about a debate team where one member was a freshman. They were all graduate law students. That was a whole lot we were going up against," she said. Wells recalled that before the match, Tolson gave her pointers on how to punch up her speech. "He said, 'You've got to put something in there to wake the people up,' " she recalled. The movie has sparked new interest in Wiley College, which has a student enrollment of 926. There is even discussion about revitalizing debating that tapered off after Tolson left the university. Humbled by the attention While friends were happy about the film being made, some were disappointed that the female character did not use Wells' name. Despite this, they knew Wells' contribution. "It makes me feel very proud," said J. Marie McCleary, who was also a student assistant for Tolson. "She wasn't at all intimidated by working with young men. She just stood out. She spoke very well." As for Wells, who was unable to attend the recent screening at Wiley, she can now say that she's met Denzel Washington. Jurnee Smollett, the young actress who plays the female debater in the film, has come to Houston several times to visit her. Wells has had the film privately screened for her in her room and gets requests for interviews. When the movie opens in theaters Tuesday, she will spend it quietly with friends and family in her room. Como said they plan to fill her room with balloons. Wells is humbled by the attention. "I hope I live up to the ideals in it," she said. "The movie is supposed to inspire young people to want to go to college, to try hard, to know it's not all easy but there's so much you gain from it."