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No debate: Inmates took on best, won

Researchers will use library forum tonight to share stories of Norfolk prison’s 1950s team

The 1951 debate between Norfolk inmates and Oxford was held in the prison's auditorium. The 1951 debate between Norfolk inmates and Oxford was held in the prison's auditorium. (ale Joel/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / May 26, 2011

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In late 1951, the famed University of Oxford debate team was nearing the end of a US tour that saw the English scholars defeating every collegiate squad they faced.

Its streak was about to end.

On this December night, Oxford was up against an American team that had also defeated many top schools, including Harvard, Yale, and the US Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

But this time their opponent was the Norfolk Debating Society, a team of men in black cardigans whose normal apparel was black and white stripes, the required uniform of convicts at the Norfolk Prison Colony. The debate’s topic was whether the United States should create a free national health service.

Oxford was arguing the affirmative; the Norfolk team, the negative. At the end of the night, before hundreds of onlookers, the competition’s three judges — a former Rhode Island governor, a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court justice, and a Harvard Law School dean — decided unanimously that the Norfolk inmates had won.

The prison’s debate team was created soon after Norfolk opened in 1931, and grew into a powerhouse: By 1959, the team had won 201 of its 270 debates.

The feats of the remarkable team have won brief mentions, including one in the autobiography of Malcolm X, who exercised his debating skills during a four-year stint at Norfolk. But most of its history has faded away since the team was disbanded some four decades ago.

Now, two researchers who have spent the last year tracking down survivors of the team, their coaches, and their opponents have created an oral history of the Norfolk Debating Society.

In a presentation at 7 tonight at the Norfolk Public Library, researchers Adam Bright and Natasha Haverty will unveil their findings for the first time.

“If this was any other team that routinely beat so many other opponents, there would have been a movie about them,’’ Bright said. “But with these guys, you’re amazed at how hard it is to tell the story, how much of it is lost, and how paltry the recording of it is compared to the achievement of it.’’

Tantalizing mentions of the Norfolk debate team have shown up in literature. Sebastian Junger mentioned the team, and Norfolk’s innovative prison, in his 2006 nonfiction book, “A Death in Belmont.’’

Malcolm X, perhaps Norfolk’s most famous debater, wrote in his autobiography: “You would be astonished to know how worked up convict debaters and audiences would get over subjects like ‘Should Babies Be Fed Milk?’ ’’

Debate was one of the innovative programs at Norfolk, which offered dormitories instead of cell blocks. Inmates wrote for a prison newspaper, tended gardens, had access to a library, and learned trades to help them find jobs once they were released.

“To me, it was almost like a university instead of a prison,’’ said Norman Herr, a former Norfolk inmate, in a recent interview.

Herr, who was convicted of check fraud in the 1950s, had written about music for the prison paper, and joined the debate team when the topic was rock ’n’ roll. He said they would spend weeks preparing for each debate.

Bright, 30, and Haverty, 24, managed to find and interview 30 people connected with the team, including 11 inmates.

Their research wasn’t easy. They began by poring over old prison documents, searching for the names of anyone affiliated with the team. But even with names, it was difficult to trace the former prisoners.

“You might know where they born, and when they were first charged with a crime,’’ Bright said. “Unless you find a legal document, you have a name from the ’50s and you just don’t know where they went. You have no idea if they were 50 when they were in prison or if they were 19.’’

And once the researchers found the former inmates, contacting them decades after their release raised some tricky issues.

“Before we even began the project, we had long ethical conversations with our supporting scholars, and kind of role-played ‘what if’ worst-case scenarios. What if you call and you get the guy’s wife and she says, ‘Who are you?’ ’’ Bright said.

“And she has no idea the guy’s been in prison,’’ Haverty said.

“And so you say, ‘Can I talk to Joe?’ And she says, ‘Why do you want to talk to him?’ What do we say?’’ Bright said.

They decided they wouldn’t tell anyone but the former prisoner why they were calling. That meant that occasionally they lost potential interview subjects.

Bright and Haverty wondered how being on the team changed the lives of the inmates. One of its best debaters was described by those who knew him as brilliant — and, some said, sociopathic.

“And then another person on the team who also was one of the absolute brilliant stars . . . was almost certainly innocent, was almost certainly wrongfully convicted,’’ Haverty said. “Then there’s a lot of gray areas between those two character types.’’

Barbara Bartholomew, a member of the Norfolk Historical Commission, which is providing funding for the oral history project, grew up in town and remembers hearing about the debate team. She especially remembers when the inmates defeated a team from Montreal’s McGill University.

“Everyone was astounded, because McGill was considered to be at the top of the pile in terms of debate teams,’’ she said.

Norfolk’s contest against the undefeated Oxford team in 1951 was covered by Time magazine.

On the topic of free national health service, with Norfolk’s job to argue against the premise, Time reported: “Finally, Bill the Check Passer rose to speak, and his argument was just the sort of thing his audience understood. ‘Guests of Norfolk, voluntary and involuntary,’ he began, ‘a free national health service will not make medical services better, but worse. The neurotics and malingerers will swamp our doctors and make it impossible for them to tend the really sick. I have been an unwilling native in a socialist Utopia for some time, and I know it will not work.’ ’’

Bright and Haverty stumbled upon the idea of writing about the Norfolk team after Bright reread a biography about Canadian songwriter Leonard Cohen, who had been a debater at McGill University in the 1950s. The book mentioned that he had faced the Norfolk team, but said little about the prison program.

The researchers had met through the Moth, a New York City nonprofit organization dedicated to storytelling, and were living in Brooklyn at the time.

They applied for a $10,000 grant through the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities to help them prepare an oral history on the debate team, and eventually moved to the state to start research.

Tonight, they will play selections from their interviews, lead a community discussion, and then serve coffee and cake, the same treats served after the Norfolk debates.

After Bright and Haverty finish the oral history, they plan to create an audio archive of all their interviews, as well as a written transcript. They hope this will join the collections of university libraries as well as the library at MCI-Norfolk, as the prison is now known. They also hope to make a radio documentary and collect their interviews in a book.

“I think part of the power of this is that it happened, and then the logical extension of this is you could do it again,’’ said Bright.

Visit library.virtualnorfolk.org for details on tonight’s presentation at the Norfolk Public Library, 139 Main St.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com.