Don Roman Jr. could barely come up with the words on Friday to describe what it feels like to be champion.
Neither could Keith Harris.
But, this week, when the two debate partners needed eloquence the most, it was there.
The high school seniors from Atlanta led a group of 21 students to victory in Harvard University’s prestigious summer debate tournament.
It was the second year in a row that the Atlanta team has won the tournament, hosted by the Harvard Debate Council. In 2018, the group from Atlanta became the first all-black team to take top honors.
Though Roman and Harris had never debated competitively until they joined the team 10 months ago, the pair went undefeated in the tournament, finishing 10-0 while vying against students from 15 countries.
Up to 400 students sparred in the week-long tournament. Students also take part in a daily, 10-hour academic regimen with classes focused on research, analysis, argumentation and political science, taught by highly accomplished debate professors and instructors.
Of the 21 teenagers on the Atlanta team, made up of students from various area high schools, five advanced to the quarterfinals of the single-elimination tournament, giving the squad the most cumulative points.
The team is put together by Brandon P. Fleming, an Atlanta resident who serves as assistant debate coach at Harvard.
Fleming founded the Harvard Diversity Project to address a lack of African-American representation at the summer debate residency.
“This is the moment that we’ve worked so hard for,” said Roman, 17, a senior at North Atlanta High School. “Our accomplishment is far bigger than us. We are showing the world what black youths are capable of achieving when given equal access, exposure, and opportunities. This win is for our ancestors, our city, and most of all our culture.”
That pride is exactly what Fleming was looking to accomplish when he started recruiting from local Atlanta high schools.
“It sends a message to the world to what African American youth are capable of, if they are given access and opportunities,” Fleming said. “Most of our students have never been exposed to the power of academic debate. Knowing that they will compete against hundreds of scholars who have years of debate experience, combined with the benefit of private and prep schools to their advantage, we seek to level the playing field by introducing our students to higher level academic disciplines that are typically unavailable in traditional school settings.”
In putting together his teams, Fleming specifically targets students with no debate experience. Then he trains them for 10 months, “so they can compete against students from all over the world.”
His team’s name: The Great Debaters, in honor of historically black Wiley College’s debate squads, which broke convention in the 1920s and 1930s to compete against and beat white debate teams.
A 2007 movie of the same name, starring Denzel Washington, fictionalized a final debate between Wiley and Harvard.
Harris, a 16-year-old senior at Westlake High School, said he didn’t expect to win, going into the tournament, given his lack of experience.
“I figured we would get to the Top 16,” Harris said. “But once we broke the Top 16, we rose to the occasion in every debate. We just kept getting better and better. The fact that this pulled all of this out of us is incredible.”
Fresh off this year’s championship, Fleming is already putting together a new set of students who will begin training in August for the 2020 Harvard residency.
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