Saturday, June 8, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Melvin B. Tolson's Debate Legacy

I'm currently reading David Gold's Rhetoric at the Margins: Revising the History of Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1873-1947. This book attempts to demonstrate that the histories of American rhetorical instruction (such as those I've recently written about by Kitzhaber and Berlin), are important works but incomplete. They paint with too broad of a brush, Gold argues, and ignore some nuances to what they've deemed a faulty and detrimental adherence to current-traditional rhetorical practices.

In order to show that American writing instruction in colleges was actually more dynamic than some of these earlier histories suggest, Gold turns to some college environments that were "at the margins," and thus sometimes ignored. He looks at the practices of Wiley, a black college in Texas, focusing specifically on one professor from 1923-1947; Texas Woman's University from 1901-WWII; and East Texas Normal College from 1889-1917. His intent is to trace rhetorical practices that merge current-traditional practices with more progressive methods, demonstrating that this period in American rhetorical history was not as bleak as some reports would suggest.

I'm reading the part about Wiley, and I found some really interesting connections to contemporary rhetorical practices. Gold explains that oratorical practices (which had fallen out of favor with some of the more classical curricula at white schools) remained a very important part of black schools--both in the classroom and as extracurricular activities. Debate clubs were incredibly popular and drew large, paying crowds to watch the action.

Gold's research looks at the practices of Melvin B. Tolson, an English professor and debate coach at Wiley. Tolson was a progressive thinker who was very strict but very caring. His students were greatly impacted by his methods, and many went on to great and historically significant careers. Tolson insisted that "creating an illusion of naturalness was . . . the essence of being human" and believed (in the early 1900's) that "race was a social construct and one deeply entwined with class divisions. Truth to him was epistemic, 'a matter to be arrived at by collective argument.'"

As a debate coach, he broke ground. He led his team to "the first interracial debate in the United States" in Chicago in 1930. He then participated in the first interracial debate in the South (Oklahoma City) in 1931. Gold also had this to say about the legacy he created through the debate team:
During Tolson's tenure as debate coach, the team traveled an estimated sixty thousand to seventy-five thousand miles. In the 1930 season alone, in addition to traveling to Chicago, the team met Arkansas State University, Virginia Union University, and Wilberforce University in Ohio, then met Fisk at home, and began touring with them in exhibition matches in Texas. . . By 1935, the team had been to Wisconsin, Kansas, New Mexico, and California. That a team from a small back college could travel so widely--much less compete successfully--during the height of the Depression is a remarkable achievement.
Also noted in Gold's book is a little about Tolson's own history. I learned that he was born around Moberly, Missouri and attended Lincoln High School in Kansas City. Interestingly, this is the high school my husband attended, and they are currently making headlines for their national performance in debate.

This team was having a hard time finding the budget to continue its travels and participation, and it recently entered a contest with State Farm to get some more funding. The contest was held through social media votes, and Lincoln Prep was one of the winning teams, so they will receive a $25,000 grant to help them support their extracurricular endeavor. (The social media aspect demonstrated to me something that Gold said about debate's place in black schools: "oratorical competition served, practically and symbolically, as a means of both individual and community achievement.")

Full circle.


  1. Lincoln Prep DebateJune 17, 2013 at 1:15 PM

    Thanks for the article!

    As the debate coach (Mr. Jouya) for Lincoln Prep, it's always great to hear about those who followed/studied the legacy Tolson left. I hope I can contribute even a small fraction of what Tolson has done.

    Gold is dead on about what debate can mean in urban schools. I've witnessed it first hand, it creates advocates for social justice and gives students the tools to become leaders in their communities. This is especially important in the era of "coin-banking" pedagogical practices.

    We appreciate the plug and hope that you follow our success (we're currently competing at the National Forensic League National Tournament in Birmingham, Alabama - it's the first time we've ever qualified to this prestigious tournament)

    Twitter: LincolnPrepDB8

  2. Lincoln Prep DebateJune 17, 2013 at 1:16 PM

    It might also be worth mentioning that the movie "The Great Debaters" helped re-establish Wiley College's debate team. Two of our graduating senior boys were offered full-ride debate scholarships there.

    Bringing Tolson's legacy full circle.