Invited to watch a friend give a keynote speech at Wiley College in Marshall Texas, I answered, "Yes and when do we leave" before the question was complete.
I hadn't forgotten that the 2007 movie titled "The Great Debaters" – starring Denzel Washington as Professor Melvin Tolson – was based on a debate team at the very same Wiley College. I still remembered the authority with which Denzel played that lead and the force of his teachings as he braced his team for verbal combat.
The perseverance, courage and outright intellect of the young, evolving debaters was worth the price of admission alone. Fast forward and the legacy of those mighty Great Debaters remains. It hangs from walls, is stuffed in guest-speaker bags, written in bricks, flashes on billboards and is conveniently spoken on the answering machines of the college administrators.
The history is as thick as gumbo. Tolson's home site sits directly next to the college. Some of the movie was filmed right there. And as luck would have it, one of the new Great Debaters was available to speak to me.
I had sent word to the student dorms that I wished to do an interview with someone from the Debate Team. Sophomore Austin Dean Ashford, a young African-American man and the captain of the current Wiley College Debate Team, showed up, well groomed, pants appropriately up on his behind and playing the ukulele. Someone should tell Denzel that the million dollars he gave to the school to revive the debate team has brought forward a ridiculously good amount of return.
"In October of 2013 we won an exhibition against USC and that was really nice," said Ashford. "Turn around and then we recently defeated Yale in an exhibition. After that in March we competed in a 20-team tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas and won the Junior Varsity National Championship.
"Our team is compiled of nothing but freshmen and sophomores, so we're going to be even stronger next year," Ashford said. "Also, just about a week ago we competed in the oldest Debate Tournament there is and this is the same tournament that wouldn't let our college participate back in the day just because we were black. The tournament, which is held in Indianapolis, Ind., is called the Pi Kappa Delta Tournament and there were 90 teams involved and we won that one as well."
Kelvin Cowans: Congratulations, you guys are really doing something special here, still.
Austin Dean Ashford: Oh yes, we have a really good team and we're getting better. We can always improve. I have to mention that in January we placed second in the World Championships as Australia won that tournament, so we have room to improve.
KC: Where are you from young man and how did you end up here at Wiley College?
ADA: I'm from Union City, California and I was offered a scholarship to come here and be on the debate team. So I felt like it was a blessing from God and jumped on it.
KC: How is the environment here?
ADA: People here care about each other. We have an enrollment of about 1500 people and we're sitting right here in the middle of a neighborhood. It's like if you're not doing right in school everyone knows. You can be walking down the street and someone will call from their porch and say, "Hey you, what's wrong with you? I heard what you did, now get it together. And for me, I needed that. I may not have received that at a big college.
Having to go to Chapel every week helped me. I didn't have a high school diploma. I had some attitude issues back then, so I had to pass the G.E.D. But look at me now. I'm on my way to get my doctorate, and that's because of here.
KC: Outstanding sir. So this is a United Methodist School.
ADA: Yes, and it shows. Our basketball (and) volleyball teams play nationals all the time. Our choir is dynamic. The people around here are impressed less and inspire more. We do a lot of praying here, as much as needed. My freshman year I won seven individual debate titles. This year I have already won five. So I'm like, 'Oh, God is working.' This is the black Harvard and no one knows it because it's a small town that no one recognizes. But this is black gold!
KC: Gotcha. Tell me, what is the reason that you are walking around playing that ukulele?
ADA: Ha, there's something about the acoustic music that connects with me. It's relaxing. I love classic music. I'm very aware of Stax records in Memphis also. You guys have birthed a lot of great tunes, I keep up.
KC: I know that the movie "The Great Debaters" was before your time here, but what do you remember thinking about that movie?
ADA: I remember being excited because they were making a movie about debating. That was mind blowing to me. The activity that we do is not mainstream, it's not publicized. So that was amazing to me, because I can't look up to a LeBron James in speech and debate. It doesn't exist.
Then there's no professional league either. If you don't do it in high school or college, then that's it. Seeing that movie and those teens that looked like me shifted my mind. They went undefeated for ten years. That's unheard of.
KC: You are a multi champion in debate. Give me your mindset as you're taking the stage.
ADA: I'm thinking, "God use me. God take over my body, take over my voice, take over my mannerisms. Whatever you need to shift this room right now, use me. You've taken me to far. Whatever purpose you have within this body, use me all the way. Take away all nervousness. Allow me to have a relaxed confidence. Allow me to speak clearly with diction from my heart and my soul and my spirit regardless of anything else."
KC: Wow. How old are you?
ADA: I'm 23 years old sir.
KC: I know you're a champion, but what is your greatest defeat?
ADA: I'm still working on it sir. It's faith. Faith, consistency and hard work are what I'm still working on. I'm going to have to have faith. I'm going to have to also work harder than everybody else and I do and that's why they can't touch me. While they are sleep, I work.
KC: What is your greatest victory.
ADA: It's going to be my graduation date. When a man goes from a G.E.D. to a college graduate, that's great. That's going to be the greatest.
KC: Could you argue the affirmative on that.
ADA: Of course; without affirmation you don't know where you're going.