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Oratory and Debate

Joseph C. Price 1890
The art of debate has a long history that can be traced back to the philosophical debates of Ancient Greece. Its current history, however, goes back to the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century. Debating societies began cropping up in London by the mid-18th century and debate topics touched on all aspects of public life and thought. Interestingly, and importantly, major African American speeches date from this era as well, when thought leaders began addressing the public on issues ranging from slavery to education to involvement in public life and educating society on moral imperatives. Oratory and debate are vital skills in any community, but especially one that strives to galvanize action to redress grievances.

Melvin B. Tolson, poet, educator, columnist, and politician, created and nurtured an award-winning debate team at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. The Wiley Forensic Society had a ten-year winning streak and broke the color barrier when, in 1935, they competed against the University of Southern California and won.

BUDL at the White House, 2013
The rich tradition of debate and oratory in America continues today. Many people think of debate only in terms of candidates running for political office. However, formal debate is an integral part of the education system and plays an important role in the intellectual growth of a new generation leaders. In 2008, two young men made history by being the first African Americans to win  a national college debate championship. Dayvon Love and Deven Cooper were the products of the Baltimore Urban Debate League (BUDL). BUDL was founded in 1999 by the Open Society Institute. BUDL is the largest of the urban debate leagues, which now include over 400 schools in 16 of the nation's cities. Engaging in the art of debate has turned around the lives of many young people and enriched the communities in which they reside.