Bakersfield College History
1936 LeMoyne College v. BJC: First Interracial Debate
By Jerry Ludeke
Reprinted from: BC Archives Newsletter, Spring 2015, V14, Is1 P1-2
The date is February 22, 1936. A headline in The Bakersfield Californianannounces: “FAMED LEMOYNE DEBATERS HERE: Noted Negro Forensic Team Will Meet J.C. Stars in Match This Evening.” The next day’s paper reports: “Big Throng Hears LeMoyne Debaters. An interested audience heard the non-decision debate between Bakersfield Junior College speakers and the LeMoyne College Negro debate team in the junior college lecture hall Saturday night.” The topic was “Resolved: That Congress should have the power by two-thirds majority to override decisions of the Supreme Court declaring legislation passed by Congress unconstitutional.”
LeMoyne College (LeMoyne-Owen since 1968) is in the rich tradition of “private, church-related collegesthat have historically served Black students.” Located in Memphis, Tennessee, Its roots go back to 1862. Over the years LeMoyne, as well as Bakersfield Junior College, has been known for its strong debate teams.
Dr. Elton Weaver III, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor of History at LeMoyne-Owen, is currently writing a history of the LeMoyne debate program and contacted Bakersfield College to confirm the match held here. A search did indeed confirm the match with mention in the Raconteur, The Renegade Rip, and The Bakersfield Californian.
According to Dr.Weaver, “throughout the 1930s and 40s, Coach Boris Alexander arranged for African-American debaters to participate in interracial debating tours to promote good race relations between black and white college students. During the height of American Apartheid—legalized racial segregation, Professor Alexander christened his pre-Civil Rights intercollegiate and interracial tours experiments in ‘interracial Goodwill.’ ” One tour took them to the South Pacific and Australia.
We know from newspaper reports that the LeMoyne team debated in Los Angeles colleges the days before and at UC Berkeley the day after they debated in Bakersfield. In the 1936 LeMoyne College Debate Log, Coach Alexander wrote: “Feb 22. Bakersfield Junior College is one of the best debating schools in California, its representatives being in the habit of winning all its debates … At Bakersfield we were entertained in the house of Dr. and Mrs. George A. Landis, whose hospitality extended into Sunday afternoon.”
Actually the correct spelling of their hosts’ name is Handis. Dr. George Handis was a well-known and admired medical doctor. His wife, Lena Handis, was the first black woman employed as a social worker in Kern County and was a sought after speaker in the community. Mrs. Handis was selected to be the moderator of the debate between BJC and LeMoyne. It is interesting to note that the two LeMoyne debaters, Charles W. Gilton and James S. Byas, were sons of prominent black doctors.
In answering an inquiry about Boris Alexander, Dr. Weaver wrote: “Yes, Coach Alexander was definitely white. He sincerely loved LeMoyne College and strove to help every black student he came in contact with … He was a Russian immigrant who had escaped Russia a few years after Lenin’s Bolshevik take over… [He] always taught LeMoyne students that, “The mind is thegreatest weapon.’ "
Dr. Weaver also wrote: “In my opinion, LeMoyne and Bakersfield’s positive interracial interaction illustrates both colleges’ willingness to contribute to racial equality.” Bakersfield Junior College at the time was under Miss Grace Bird’s enlightened leadership.