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Reviving The Great Debaters Tradition

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, 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.


The result is that an important source of leadership training for young African-Americans has been shut down. I see that clearly every day. For the last few years, I’ve been writing speeches for corporate executives, nonprofit leaders and government representatives. The more speeches I’ve written, the more I’ve realized how close connections are between a “great debater” and an executive who can give a great speech.

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 add a human touch — stories, anecdotes, even jokes — to engage their audience. And they have to mix in a carefully considered appeal to the emotions to get their audiences to do what they want. Debaters have to sway judges. Executives have to move stockholders, or their employees, or the press — or in this day and age — members of Congress.


In short, the decline of debate at HBCUs has choked off a pipeline that could be supplying young executives of color to our corporations, our nonprofits and our government organizations.


The decline of HBCU debate is a problem that has been decades in the making, with plenty of blame to go around. John Davis and I have joined with Dr. Tim O’Donnell (chair of the NDT and director of debate at the University of Mary Washington) to create the Debate Consortium, which has already had some successes reviving debate by working with HBCUs and government.


But political, education and business leaders must do more. In particular, corporations should step in to support debate at HBCUs, not only as good corporate citizens, but also out of self-interest. Reviving debate at HBCUs will help expand the pool of talented young people business will need in the 21st century.


I hate to admit it, but right now most of the executives I write speeches for are White and male. I’d very much like to see that change, by giving more HBCU students the chance to be “great debaters,” who can move on to becoming terrific executives.


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 “The Great Debaters” starring Denzel Washington. For more information, please visit

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