All-black Atlanta debate team nails a victory at Harvard

“The Great Debaters” make history in first year of competition

At the age of 17, Jordan Thomas seems too young to carry the burden of his race on his broad shoulders. But when he traded football for the debate team and made his way to Harvard University, he tackled a long-standing stigma.

Earlier this month, the Grady High School senior won the university’s prestigious summer debate tournament hosted by the Harvard Debate Council, beating close to 400 other debaters from around the world.

Thomas was one of 25 Atlanta students – all black — to make up a local team of Atlanta high school students put together by Harvard’s assistant debate coach, Brandon Fleming.

Flanked by two of his teammates, Jordan Thomas took home the debate championship of the annual residency hosted by the Harvard Debate Council. Payton Gunner (at left) and class president Osazi Al Khaliq (at right) make up part of the 25-person Atlanta team, who call themselves “The Great Debaters.”“I was determined to represent my city and my story. I wanted people to see where I came from and how I could keep up with them,” Thomas said. (AJC Staff/Bob Andres)

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“Just to go on to Harvard’s campus and beat everyone who doubted me was amazing,” said Thomas, a senior at Grady High School in Atlanta. “There was stigma because there was an assumption that we were only there because we were black or just because this program was created. The stigma of being young, black kids from the South. It seems like we were being written off by a lot of people.”Not Fleming, who recruited from Atlanta high schools like a football coach plucking out talent to participate in his Atlanta-based Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project. He uses the project as a pipeline to recruit, training and feed students of color into the Ivy League school’s summer program on full scholarships.

“I noticed the lack of African-American representation at the summer residency and I wanted to do something about it,” said Fleming, a former Ron Clark Academy teacher who commutes back to Cambridge from Atlanta monthly. “The model of our organization is changing narrative. We want to show them what black excellence looks like when scholarship meets culture.”

Brandon Fleming, an assistant coach of the Harvard Debate Council and the organizer of the Diversity Program, said he rarely saw black students competing at major events and wanted to change that. (AJC Staff/Bob Andres)

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Up to 400 students from around the world compete in the tournament, where students prepare on site with a daily 10-hour academic regimen, learning from highly accomplished debate professors and instructors who engage them through rigorous curricula centered on research, analysis, argumentation and political science.

“There was this feeling of pressure. Not only disproving the stigma around African-American children and their intelligence, but also this pressure of being the first,” said Payton Gunner, a 15-year-old junior at Drew Charter. “We had to make footprints that people could follow.”

They blazed a trail even as they followed others.

The Great Debaters

In a nod to the past, the team calls themselves “The Great Debaters,” in honor of the great Wiley College debate teams that broke convention in the 1920s and 1930s to compete with and beat white debate teams as an HBCU.

A 2007 movie of the same name, starring Denzel Washington, fictionalized a final debate between Wiley and Harvard inside Harvard’s stately Sanders Theatre.

In this version of “The Great Debaters,” the first-year team — broken up onto a dozen smaller teams — actually made it to Harvard. Along with Thomas’ first place finish, 10 of the 12 Atlanta teams advanced to the round of 16.

Six advanced to the quarterfinals and two made the semifinals.

The question they debated?: “Resolved: The United States should accede to the United Nations Convention Law of the Sea without reservation.”

“Our kids dominated the competition,” said Fleming, adding that more than 150 students tried out for the team with 25 making it from 16 different metro Atlanta high schools. “I was looking for leadership, high academic performance and passion. As you look around the country in leadership positions, many leaders participated in speech and debate. That is a trend we can’t ignore. We want to address this national trend of African-Americans not being recognized in positions of power.”

Limited access keeps black numbers down 

That might continue to be a challenge. Despite the success of the movie and the sudden emergence of the Atlanta students, the numbers of black kids in debate are still shockingly low.

Herman Felton, the president of Wiley College, points to a 2004 study published in the “Journal of the American Forensics Association,” showing that African-Americans participated in only seven percent of activities classified as debate.

Herman Felton (right), said Wiley College continues to build on the debate legacy that Melvin Tolson started in 1924 when he took over the school’s debate program and took them to national prominence. 

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“Communications and debate are not things that are pushed nationwide in elementary schools, high schools and even college,” said Felton, adding that simple spaces like civic clubs are not readily available for minorities to hone the craft of debate and public speaking.

For more than 70 years, Wiley College - whose debate team is still called “The Great Debaters” - has stressed the art of debate.

This past March, to address the lack of diversity issue, the school helped create the HBCU Debate League and hosted 24 HBCU debate clubs on campus for the first of its kind tournament.

“Melvin Tolson started something that we have continued to improve on,” said Felton, of the legendary debate coach portrayed by Denzel Washington in the film. “But even more critically, America has evolved into its current state because lack of communications. Debate provides simple tools proving that we can be disagreeable and still agree, while respecting one’s value points.”

Bold, black and beautiful 

Inside their practice facility on Monday, Jordan, Gunner and Osazi Al Khaliq were hard to ignore. They all spoke loud and clear. During recorded parts of a video conversation, they would occasionally self-edit or stop themselves and start over if they stumbled.

“The Great Debaters,” on the steps of Harvard University’s Widener Library. Competing for the first time in the annual residency hosted by the Harvard Debate Council, they dominated. Ten of the final 16 groups to get through the tournament were from the Atlanta team. (Photo provided)

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But they are also kids. They teased Jordan Thomas when someone mistook him for a football player, only to turn the attention on Al Khaliq, who is smaller in size, but garners respect as the team’s loquacious president.

“I knew I wanted to be a great speaker,” said Al Khaliq, a 17-year-old senior at Maynard Jackson High School on why he started debating. “I always knew I wanted to be on the stage and convey to the audience what I wanted to convey and get standing ovations. It sounds cheesy, but that is what I see as being a “Great Debater.”

Thomas and Al Khaliq, both rising seniors and looking at colleges, go out on top and will not be on the 2019 team. No worries. More than 350 nominations have already come in, although the official application process will not open until Aug. 15.

“I wouldn’t summarize it as this was important because we were black. It meant a lot because we were black. The impact was great because we were black. We had a lot of pressure and motivation because we were black,” Gunner said. “But this was important for a lot more reasons than that. Just the idea of inclusion and acceptance and going to Harvard. Bringing a black group there and winning means something. But even if we weren’t black, any group that is underestimated, us winning meant something.”

Wiley College’s Felton agrees and plans on making some phone calls to Atlanta to recruit some of “The Great Debaters,” to join “The Great Debaters.”

“This is a quintessential example of what happens when access and opportunity collide,” Felton said. “We, as African Americans, have had difficulty being thought of as scholars and cerebral. But this is re-affirmation that we are bold, black and beautiful and unapologetically talented and brilliant.”