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How 25 Black Atlanta High School Students Are Changing The Face Of Debate

Congratulations to the 25 members of Atlanta’s new “Great Debaters” who made history this Summer at the Harvard Debate Council by scoring huge wins. Special props go out to Jordan Thomas, a Grady high school senior who won the ENTIRE competition. We are so happy to see some young black students flourishing in an Ivy League setting!

The team has been getting a ton of (well-deserved) press for their accomplishments — accomplishments that are the hard earned results of them training with their coach Brandon Fleming, who carefully assembled the team.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spoke with the coach and some of the team’s stars about their wins and what it took to get there:

“I noticed the lack of African-American representation at the summer residency and I wanted to do something about it,” said Brandon 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.”

“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.”

The team calls themselves “The Great Debaters,” as a nod to the great Wiley College debate teams who competed in the 1920s and 1930s (and were depicted in the 2007 Denzel Washington movie of the same name.) Broken down into twelve smaller teams the group debated the question, :Resolved: The United States should accede to the United Nations Convention Law of the Sea without reservation.” Six team members advanced to the quarterfinals and two made the semifinals while Jordan Thomas took first place. All in all 10 of the 12 Atlanta teams advanced to the round of 16.

Talk about domination!

“Just to go on to Harvard’s campus and beat everyone who doubted me was amazing,” said Jordan 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.”

“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.”

What a beautiful story. Let’s not forget these kids put in hard work to get these results! They spent 10 hours a day preparing for the tournament at Harvard and they worked rigorously for months in advance!

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