To celebrate Black History Month, we want to highlight some African American debaters who were trailblazers – whether in debate, in their field of expertise, or both. Because there are an incredible number of noteworthy African American debaters, please note that this list is not exhaustive! Here are just a handful of people we want to celebrate. They illustrate a tradition of excellence in and out of the debate space. These debaters made history: 


Benjamin Mays: A Leader Training Leaders

Benjamin Mays and Debate Team

Benjamin Mays was the mentor to many critically important civil rights activists, including MLK, Julian Bond, Maynard Jackson, and more. He is seen above with his fellow 1919 debate team members at Bates College. 

The Next Generation of Debaters Made Waves

Civil Rights Collage

James Farmer (upper left). MLK (upper right). Malcolm X (lower left). Bayard Rustin (lower right). These prominent civil rights leaders all used sharp debate skills to bolster their advocacy. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was a member of his high school’s debate team and competed in oratorical contests. Malcolm X was a middle school debater and debated some of the nation’s top debaters from Harvard and Yale when he participated in Norfolk Prison’s debating program. Bayard Rustin debated at Wilberforce College, while James Farmer competed at Wiley College (the HBCU famously featured in The Great Debaters). 

In the Arts 

James Earl Jones: From Debater to Darth Vader

James Earl Jones

EGOT James Earl Jones, pictured as class vice president, competed in oratorical contests and forensics during high school.

Toni Morrison: Artful Words In Speech & In Print

Toni Morrison

First African-American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Toni Morrison, was part of her high school’s debate team. 

Making THE NEWS  

Oprah Winfrey: Queen of All Media (Including Forensics?) 

Oprah Winfrey as a young debater

Oprah Winfrey was a star high school speaker and has gone on to give master classes in public speaking throughout her career.

Oprah Winfrey, who became the first black woman billionaire, competed in the NFL nationals (now NSDA).

Gwen Ifill Got a Head Start on Political Analysis

Gwen Ifill

Gwen Ifill was the first black woman to host a nationally televised US public affairs program. She was also an active debate team member. 

John H. Johnson Topped the Competition and the Forbes 400

John H Johnson

John H. Johnson, who founded the Johnson Publishing Company along with magazines Ebony and Jet, was the first black person to appear on the Forbes 400 list. At DuSable High School in South Chicago, John was an honor student, member of the debate team, manager of the school paper, and editor of the yearbook.

POWERING Politics 

Shirley Chisholm: Unbossed and Unbought, from Competitions to Congress

Shirley Chisholm

Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Shirley Chisholm set multiple records. She was first African-American to campaign for the United States presidency in a major political party and to win a U.S. presidential primary/caucus. She was also an accomplished debate team member.

Fantastic Firsts in Public Service:

Debaters in Public Service

E. Frederic Morrow (upper right) was the first African American to hold an executive position at the White House. He participated for three years on the Hackensack debate team and was president as a senior. 

First African American Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Ralph Bunche, won the award for his role in Israel’s mediation in the 1940s. He was a high school debate team member and valedictorian at Jefferson High School.

Stacey Abrams was the first African-American female major-party gubernatorial nominee of the United States, and the first to deliver a rebuttal to the State of the Union address. She honed her public speaking skills on the debate team.


From Running Cases to Running the State of Texas: Barbara Johnson

Barbara Jordan Debate

Barbara Jordan (left) poses with Texas Southern University team members.

First African American Woman named as Time Magazine’s person of the year, Democratic powerhouse Barbara Jordan had many accomplishments as an educator, public servant, and lawyer, including serving as the acting governor of Texas. She was a skilled high school debater and competed on the Texas Southern University team.

Debate Was Practice to Make Landmark Decisions for Thurgood Marshall.

Thurgood Marshall portrait

Thurgood Marshall, first African-American Supreme Court justice, was the star member of his high school debate team.


Dr. Alexa Canady: Incisive In More Than One Way

Black Excellence Debate

Dr. Alexa Canady, first American woman and first black person to become a neurosurgeon, was a member of her high school debate team and debated with the University of Michigan’s team

Love Leftovers? Thank This Debate Team Captain.

LAH portrait

Dr. Lloyd Augustus Hall amassed 59 US patents, primarily methods to prevent food spoilage like using antioxidants. He was also the captain of his debate team in high school in Aurora and top 10 in his class. 


Did we miss anyone you want to see featured? Want to see another heritage month celebrated? Let us know at!