USC Annenberg Director of Debate and Forensics Gordon Stables

“Great Debaters” event to be rematched at USC for the first time since 1935

In 1935, the debate team at Wiley College came to Los Angeles and defeated USC, the defending national champion, to become the first historically black college to win the national championship. 

On Friday, Oct. 25, Wiley will debate at USC for the first time since 1935.

The debate in 1935 served as inspiration for the 2007 film, “The Great Debaters,” starring Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker, in which Wiley College defeats Harvard’s debate team in the national championship. The success of the film made the reenactments possible, in part, because Washington made a $1 million donation to the school so it could revamp the debate program.

Since then, the Wiley College debate team has been formally known as the Melvin B. Tolson/Denzel Washington Forensics Society. 

USC and Wiley, two nationally-ranked teams, have only met one other time since 1935. In 2012, the USC Annenberg Trojan Debate Squad traveled to Marshall, Texas to face off with the Wiley College debate team and debate the necessity of civil disobedience.

The exhibition was held in front a standing-room only crowd of more than 700 people, including Wiley alumni and other distinguished guests. After the exhibition, USC Annenberg Director of Debate and Forensics Gordon Stables remarked that everyone, audience included, “won the debate.”

Immediately, Stables invited Wiley College’s Speech and Debate Team to USC for a rematch. 

“The audience is treated to a remarkable conversation among the students,” said Stables. “The exhibitions are really about showcasing the abilities of the students and demonstrating a heightened understanding of a topic.”

This year’s debate will address the role of race and ethnic identity in university admissions decisions.

“Our main interest is in debating a controversial topic and giving that topic a just and fair treatment by creating the best dialogue,” Stables said.

Trojan Debate Squad member Christian Patterson (Political Science, News Media and Society minor ’15) and team captain Clara Purk (International Relations, Global Communication minor '14) will compete against Wiley debaters Lyle Kleinman (’16) and Nathan Leal (’15). 

“I think this year's debate will build on the excitement and tradition we established last time we visited Wiley,” said Purk, who participated in the 2012 debate at Wiley. “The debate we had two years ago was such a novelty, since the two schools hadn't met in quite some time.”

Patterson added that he’s glad the two schools continue “to commemorate a really historic event between such storied programs.”

“As a student of color, I have a great deal of appreciation for what the Wiley debate team accomplished in the 1930's, so to be a part of the celebration of that event is a real honor,” added Patterson.

The Trojan Debate Squad is also hoping to show the visiting Wiley students the USC campus and the city of Los Angeles. 

“Everyone was so welcoming when we visited, and we made friends very quickly,” said Purk. “I am looking forward to returning the favor and showing our Wiley peers some classic Trojan hospitality.”

The debate falls at the beginning of USC’s annual Trojan Family Weekend, and organizers hope visiting families will take advantage of the opportunity to attend the debate. Purk added that she was excited to share “with the USC community the exciting and intellectual culture of debate.”

“I realized debate has so much potential to educate and influence audiences,” said Purk. 

The exhibition will be held Friday, Oct. 25 in Salvatori Science Center Room 101, starting with opening remarks from Dean Ernest J. Wilson III at 5:30 p.m. The event is sold out; seating is available at a live video simulcast in Taper Hall Room 101.