All-black Atlanta debate team nails a victory at Harvard

Jordan Thomas took home the debate championship of the annual residency. Payton Gunner (at left) and class president Osazi Al Khaliq (at right) make up part of the 25-person team, who call themselves “The Great Debaters.” (AJC Staff/Bob Andres) 

ATLANTA — 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.”

They blazed a trail even as they followed others.