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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.”