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Sean Easterwood and Dashawnta Brunson recently appeared on a Fox Sports segment about Melvin Tolson -- a Kansas City native who led Wiley College's first African American debate team to the 1935 national finals, where they defeated the University of Southern California.

The Great Debaters

UMKC Debate Team continues Melvin Tolson's dream

In 1935, Melvin Tolson rose up against the weight of racism and poverty. The Kansas City native led Wiley College's first African American debate team to the national finals, where they defeated the University of Southern California.

Today, the University of Missouri-Kansas City Debate Team, DEBATE-Kansas City and "The Great Debaters" -- an award winning-movie about Tolson -- continue his legacy. Three UMKC Debate team members and DEBATE-Kansas City alumni -- Dashawnta Brunson, Desmond Mason and Sean Easterwood -- recently spoke about how Tolson had inspired their debate careers on a Fox Sports story about "The Great Debaters."

"His legacy encourages me to keep going," Brunson said on the program.

As a high school student, Brunson first participated in debate through DEBATE-Kansas City -- a non-profit organization housed at UMKC. Founded by former UMKC Debate director Linda Collier, DEBATE-Kansas City promotes debate to more than 3,500 middle and high school students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to experience debate's empowering potential. Three members of the UMKC Debate team are DEBATE-Kansas City alumni, and several other DEBATE-Kansas City alumni have graduated from UMKC. One of the first DEBATE-Kansas City students to debate at the national level attended UMKC to debate, became the UMKC Student Government Association president and is now attending law school.

Without DEBATE-Kansas City, Brunson said she would not have debated for UMKC.

"I believe that UMKC Debate and DEBATE-Kansas City work hand in hand," Brunson said. "It is very important for debaters to make connections within the debate world, and UMKC and DEBATE-Kansas City have given people that opportunity."

Since joining UMKC Debate, Brunson has competed in national debate competitions and given back to DEBATE-Kansas City. Along with her UMKC Debate team members, Brunson coaches high school debaters and speech students, judges competitions and works to raise money for DEBATE-Kansas City. Brunson also received an award from the Kansas City mayor for her success at UMKC.

Because Tolson attended Lincoln High School in Kansas City, it was a natural partnership for DEBATE-Kansas City to connect with the Tolsons. DEBATE-Kansas City has coordinated several events that promote that connection, including inviting actors from "The Great Debaters" to speak to students and inviting three Tolson family members to last year’s DEBATE-Kansas City Awards Night.

The UMKC Debate program operates from the Department of Communication Studies. It has ranked among the nation’s top 10 debate teams, including UCLA and Cornell. In 1994 and 1995, UMKC Debate won the Cross Examination Debate national championship. In 2007, UMKC Debate earned second place at the National Debate Tournament.

Matt Vega, UMKC Debate director, said the team owes its success to strong coaches, exceptional debaters and institutional support.

"We have the institutional support necessary to compete at the highest levels against schools like Harvard, Northwestern, California-Berkeley, Michigan and Emory," Vega said. "National media coverage and competitive successes like the second-place finish at the National Debate Tournament in 2007 promote the program to thousands of students. Each year, we receive inquiries from debaters throughout the country."

Posted: March 09, 2009

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"It is very important for debaters to make connections within the debate world, and UMKC and DEBATE-Kansas City have given people that opportunity."

Dashawnta Brunson
Freshman UMKC Debate Team Member

 

Melvin Tolson was an American poet, educator, columnist and politician.


Melvin Denzel Washington portrayed Tolson in "The Great Debaters"  - an award-winning film about the Wiley College debate team.