Mo. native featured in 'The Great Debaters'

Sunday, January 6, 2008 | 8:34 p.m. CST; updated 4:01 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — “The Great Debaters” stars Denzel Washington as Melvin B. Tolson, a college professor who forms the school’s first debate team.

Before working at Wiley College, though, Tolson lived in Moberly.

Tolson was born in Moberly in 1898 to Alonzo and Lera Ann Tolson of the United Methodist Church. Moberly residents say that Tolson’s father, Alonzo, was a pastor at Gilum Memorial Methodist Chapel. That church was later combined with Jefferson Avenue United Methodist Church, said the Rev. Robert Frey, who preaches at Jefferson Avenue today.

Tolson’s time in Moberly was brief. The Tolsons moved often, starting in 1900, to towns across Missouri such as New Franklin, Independence and New Bloomfield.

This nomadic existence was commonplace for ministers in the United Methodist Church at the time, said Melvin Tolson Jr., who is Tolson’s oldest son and lives in Oklahoma.

The Rev. Dr. Dorothy Smith, pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Moberly, was surprised to hear that Tolson was a Missouri native and thinks it is important for Moberly residents to know.

“It would make a difference,” Smith said. “This town enjoys saying ‘this person is from here’ or ‘we did this.’ It would do a good thing for pride in our community.”

Smith said she believes Tolson’s upbringing in the United Methodist Church may have played a role in his later accomplishments.

“The United Methodist Church believes in holiness and education,” Smith said. “These are general principles the church was founded upon and lived by.”

Tolson taught at Wiley College, an institution associated with the United Methodist Church, and thought of becoming a pastor at one point.

Melvin Tolson Jr. is somewhat happy that his father, who became a well-known poet and writer, did not follow through with that plan.

“I do not think that we would have some of the literary works we have today,” he said. “There are not many preachers that put out great literary works.”

That did not stop his interest in speaking yearly to members of a Methodist Episcopal church in New Jersey, Melvin Tolson Jr. said. He was invited every year by the congregation to discuss philosophical issues.

“The Great Debaters” opened this past weekend at Hollywood Theaters—Stadium 14 in Columbia. Smith has plans to see it and encourages others, especially children, of Moberly to do the same.

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