Skip to content

Historically Black Colleges Return to the Debates

As President-elect Barack Obama prepares to take office, six colleges and universities from across the country are wasting no time jumping into the debate over his administration’s priorities.

The First Inaugural College Debates will take place in Baird Auditorium at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday.

In addition to the inauguration, the debate is a celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the 100th anniversary of the first debate between two historically black colleges and universities.

In 1908, students from Howard and Shaw universities debated whether to give subsidies to ships transporting goods from South America to the United States. Shaw University, which argued against the subsidies, won.

“The debates will not be judged. They are just to raise issues that will be critically important to Obama’s first 100 days,” said Jeff Porro, co-founder of the Debate Consortium, the series’ organizer. Porro co-wrote the story of “The Great Debaters,” the 2007 film that starred Denzel Washington and was produced by Oprah Winfrey.

After the release of the film, debate aficionados Timothy O’Donnell, John W. Davis II and Porro had dinner and talked about how to encourage HBCUs to participate in intercollegiate debates. The result was the Debate Consortium.

“We wanted to get HBCUs back in the game of debating,” said O’Donnell, director of debate for the University of Mary Washington and chairman of the National Debate Tournament.

Debates among HBCUs flourished in the first half of the 20th century but floundered after World War II. One of the reasons was that athletic competitions became more popular than academic competitions.

“The focus on athletic competitions became enormously out of whack,” Davis said. “From a practical point of view, debates do not sell tickets. Debates are not revenue- generating.”

Monday’s debates include HBCUs and other universities and are free and open to the public. “While touring the Mall, people can get out of the cold and listen to the debates. People can frame their opinion on the issues and perhaps call their Congressman about what they think,” said James Gordon, public affairs specialist of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, also a debate sponsor.

First up on Monday, Michigan State University will debate Wake Forest University for 75 minutes on energy and climate change. Then the University of Mary Washington takes on the University of Southern California on health care and the economy. Fayetteville State University finishes the day versus Voorhees College on foreign policy.

Even though the debate is not a competition, Kevin Kallmyer, 21, said he and teammate Terrell Taylor from the University of Mary Washington are doing extensive research on health care and the economy. “We feel incredibly privileged to be part of the series. This debate will be an historic event,” he said.

The Michigan State-Wake Forest debate begins at 9:30 a.m. Both schools are past winners of the National Debate Tournament.

Mary Washington and USC square off at 11:30 a.m. The Fayetteville State-Voorhees debate begins at 2 p.m.

Also part of the consortium, but not taking part in the first debate series, are Grambling State University, Howard University, Morgan State University and Wiley College.

Wiley’s debate team, headed by James L. Farmer Jr., beat USC in 1935. “The Great Debaters” movie was based on this debate but substituted Harvard University for USC. Farmer, played by Washington, was one of the leaders of the American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

“We want the tradition of debates between HBCUs going again because right now a lot of the spoken words you can hear is mostly through hip-hop,” Gordon said.

Recent Stories

Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, first woman on the Supreme Court, dies at 93

Members want $26 billion for programs the Pentagon didn’t seek

Expelling bee — Congressional Hits and Misses

Appeals court rejects Trump push to dismiss Jan. 6 suits from lawmakers, police

Photos of the week ending December 1, 2023

House expels Rep. George Santos