TCU’S Forensics Frogs
Frog Forensic Fraternity: Breaking barriers with “The Great Debaters”
In late November 1934, a group of TCU students chose the name Frog Forensic Fraternity for the forensics and debate society they were forming with sponsorship from faculty member Dr. Allen True. The new FFF, as the society was nicknamed in Skiff newspaper headlines, didn’t take long to become a subject of news.
Wiley College: Building a powerhouse debate team in a segregated country
In March 1935, just months after its founding, the all-white TCU team hosted a team from Wiley College, a historically Black institution in Marshall, Texas, some 185 miles east of Fort Worth. The meeting was the first interracial debate to be held on a Southern college campus.
The Skiff student newspaper reported that seats to view what it called “the mixed debate” would cost 25 cents each, and a section of the auditorium was to be “set off” for Black community members who attended. The debate at TCU also included a musical performance by students from Fort Worth’s Terrell High School, which opened in 1882 as the city’s first Black school (and closed in 1973).
Wiley’s debaters were on the first leg of a westward trip, which included invitations to debate at the University of New Mexico and at the University of Southern California. Wiley’s team had selected the proposition “that the nations should agree to prevent the international shipment of arms and munitions” as the topic of their debates.
Persisting through adversity
Because Pi Kappa Delta, the national governing body for collegiate debate, was segregated, non-white colleges such as Wiley could not compete in Pi Kappa Delta tournaments. Thus, Wiley’s legendary debate coach Melvin B. Tolson founded the Alpha Pi Omega debate circuit for historically Black colleges and universities such as Wiley, Fisk, Howard and Morehouse. Alpha Pi Omega scheduled HBCU teams against all-white colleges’ teams as unofficial, no-decision events.
The first of those debates for Wiley occurred in 1930, when its team faced a team of University of Michigan law students at a Black-owned theater in Chicago that agreed to host the interracial debate that Michigan would not host on its campus. Wiley’s first debate against a white Southern university came against the University of Oklahoma, but it, too, was held at an off-campus location.
TCU: Inviting Wiley College to its first debate on a white campus
“By 1935, Wiley’s debaters had become such a phenomenal force that few colleges (black or white) dared to challenge them,” TCU Magazine reported years later, but it was at TCU that Wiley got a chance to debate on an all-white campus.
The event merited local and national news coverage. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram described the Wiley debaters as “able” and noted that because the debate was not sanctioned by Pi Kappa Delta, “there was no judges’ decision.” The NAACP’s magazine The Crisis reported that Wiley “shattered precedent” upon “meeting Texas Christian University at Fort Worth, Tex., on the campus of the latter.” Furthermore, the magazine reported, “No race riots were reported.”
TCU debaters again hosted Wiley debaters on campus in spring 1936. Under the headline “F.F.F. Will Debate Wiley College Team,” The Skiff report seemed to suggest that TCU’s Frog Forensic Fraternity might be underdogs against the Wiley College team, whose members were “reported to have lost only one decision debate out of 75 before a combined audience of 5000 persons.” Campus community members who wanted to see TCU’s team compete with Wiley’s team again would be charged 25 cents each.
Wiley dominated college debate for at least a decade, reportedly losing just one debate between 1930 and 1940. The team’s story became a 2007 movie titled “The Great Debaters,” which was produced by Oprah Winfrey and starred Denzel Washington as Wiley coach Melvin B. Tolson.
80 Years Later:
Commemorating A Historic Occasion
Eighty years after TCU and Wiley made history, in late January 2015, TCU debaters traveled to Marshall, Texas, to debate on the HBCU’s campus. The Skiff newspaper’s story about the commemorative debate began, “The first time the TCU Forensics and The Great Debaters of Wiley College met, they could not drink from the same water fountains.” This time, the debate was sanctioned, and the TCU team was declared its winner.
Courtesy of Schieffer Associates
Learn from TCU Faculty and Fort Worth
historians about this barrier breaking event in
In March 2015, the Wiley team returned to TCU for its first visit in 80 years. In its coverage of the commemorative debate, The Skiff newspaper noted that unlike 80 years earlier, this time, sections of the audience were not segregated.
Intercollegiate debate has long been, and continues to be, an integral part of advancing TCU’s mission to educate individuals - to teach them to think and act as ethical leaders and responsible citizens of the global community.