Seventy-eight collegiate teams are competing this week at the National Debate Tournament Championships (NDT), chartered and sanctioned by the American Forensics Association. Not one of them is a historically Black college or university. The worst news is that the vast majority of the teams in the NDT do not have a single African-American debater.
More then 10 years ago I came across a three-page article about an amazing 1930s college debate team at a tiny HBCU in Texas: Wiley College. Fascinated by that history, I researched and — with screenwriter Bob Eisele — helped to write the story of that pioneering team. Bob turned our story into the screenplay that eventually became the movie “The Great Debaters.”
In researching the story, I learned for the first time about a critical chapter in American history, one which had been unknown to me, as it was to most White Americans — the grand history of debate at HBCUs. For decades, HBCUs produced some of the best collegiate debate teams in the country, and those debate teams produced some of the nation’s most important Black leaders — James L. Farmer Jr., Dr. Ralph J. Bunche Jr., Dr. John Hope Franklin, Dr. Benjamin Mays, Dr. Howard Thurman, James Nabrit Jr., Bayard Rustin, Donald McHenry and many more.
After the movie came out, however, I discovered that the recent history of debate at HBCUs is anything but grand. I learned from John W. Davis, former director of debate at Howard University (now CEO of DebateSolutions.com), that the tradition of debate at HBCUs has gone into a precipitous decline. In fact, very few HBCUs today even have debate teams, and none are competing at the highest levels.
For example, 78 collegiate teams are competing this week at the NDT championships, chartered and sanctioned by the American Forensics Association. Not one of them is an HBCU. The worse news is that the vast majority of the teams in the NDT do not have a single Black debater.
Both have to take a mass of facts and statistics and structure them into a persuasive argument. The best debaters and the best speechmakers also
Dr. Jeff Porro has written speeches and scripts for the CEOs of Fortune 250 companies, as well as for diplomats, government leaders and presidents of some of the nation’s leading trade and professional associations. He discovered and researched the true story of a Jim Crow-era African-American college debate team, and helped turn it into the 2007 feature film “
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