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Debate Movie Has KC Connection

Missouri Poet Melvin Tolson
Missouri Poet Melvin Tolson

The debate coach in the film The Great Debaters is a graduate of Kansas City's Lincoln High School. Sylvia Maria Gross talks to a UMKC professor who wrote a biography of Missouri poet Melvin Tolson, played by Denzel Washington in the film.By Sylvia Maria Gross


Kansas City, MO – The film The Great Debaters tells the true story of a 1930s champion debate team from a small African American college in Texas. The debate coach, played by Denzel Washington, was Missouri poet Melvin B. Tolson, who graduated from Kansas City's Lincoln High School.

KCUR's Sylvia Maria Gross stopped by Debate Kansas City's league championships at UMKC on Friday, to see what area students were thinking about the film. She spoke to middle school students Randy Smith, Sarah Cole, Victoria Crumpton and Alexis Way. And high school students Matheno Frazier-Bey, Cassie Johnson and Christopher Bernard.

Robert Farnsworth, UMKC Professor Emeritus, wrote a biogaphy about Melvin Tolson, the debate coach featured in The Great Debaters. Farnsworth says the flurry of interest about Tolson caught him a little off guard. KCUR's Sylvia Maria Gross talked to Farnsworth about being contacted by researchers for the movie.

Farnsworth's essay about Melvin Tolson and the film The Great Debaters appears in the February issue of New Letters. And his biography, Plain Talk and Poetic Prophecy, as well as two Tolson anthologies Caviar and Cabbage, and A Gallery of Harlem Portraits will soon be back in print.

This story was produced for KC Currents. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KC Currents Podcast.

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