Norfolk Debate Team: Transforming a Community

Norkfolk Prison Gate House

Gate House of the Norfolk Colony, circa 1938. Photo courtesy of the Department of Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

In 1927, Massachusetts commissioned the construction of the State Prison Colony at Norfolk. Noted sociologist Howard B. Gill served as Norfolk's first superintendent. Gill's approach to incarceration and rehabilitation reflected his beliefs in prison reform and the social progressivism of the era. 

One such rehabilitative innovation was the creation of the Norfolk Prison Colony Debate Team. In his autobiography, Malcolm X credits his oratory skills to his stint on the debate team at Norfolk. 

US Bureau of Prisons Quote
Photograph of Dr. Coleman Bender

Dr. Coleman Bender in 1955.

Coleman Bender discovered his love of debate while attending Pennsylvania State University in the 1940s. In 1951, he became a Professor of Speech at Emerson College, and also became a coach for the debate team. He remained affiliated with the latter for 20 years. With his guidance, the team won many tournaments, and also joined two debate fraternities. Bender was also instrumental in reviving the Norfolk Prison College debate team, coaching them to great success.

Photograph of Haig der Marderosian

Haig der Marderosian in 1975.

Haig der Marderosian was an Emerson alumnus, Class of 1954, who participated in the debate program as a student and obtained a position as a professor in the Speech Department after he also completed his master's degree at Emerson in 1955. Between 1956 and 1963 he directed the debate team, helping members hone their skills and learn new speaking techniques. He also assisted Coleman Bender in coaching the Norfolk Prison Colony debate team.