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HBCU students move to make chess more diverse

Two HBCU students joined forces to bridge the gap between chess and the Black community by creating a movement called "The Black Odyssey."
HBCU students move to make chess more diverse
Posted at 5:29 PM, May 19, 2023

The stage has been set at Morris Brown College, where students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities across the country have gathered to compete in a game-changing tournament where being a step ahead is the norm.

The idea came about when Alan Cowan from Morehouse College and Shaniah Francis from Spelman College joined forces to bridge the heavily wedged gap between chess and the Black community, thus creating The Black Odyssey.

"The opening ceremony gave me chills, just like hearing the claps and seeing all the faces, you know, it was just, it was incredible" said Cowan. "Odysseys are historically attributed to periods of enlightenment with art, with thought, intellectual thinking ... We noticed that there's tons of tournaments that are catered towards predominantly white institutions, but there has never been a tournament that's for Black students and for Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Makes me happy to see everyone here. Like, even if we win or lose ... it's just the proud moment that we brought all HBCUs together through chess and critical thinking."

Helping to spearhead the event as an adviser is chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley, the first African American to earn the title, who wouldn't even take it easy on me in a practice round.

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"So your pawn was brave, but now it's dead," said Ashley. "I have not figured this game out. No one on the planet has figured this game out. But for me the pleasure of playing this game as a young person ... I was a young kid coming up out of Brooklyn. Didn't see a lot of people like me playing the game, especially at the highest level. There was no one that looked like me playing at the grandmaster level. So, for me, it was a joy journey, that the truth of it was my passion was to become a grandmaster."

That's a goal he accomplished in 1999, and to this day he is still pushing the limits of his potential, an inspiring mindset for the next generation of chess players.

"I've been a part of history myself. And I know that history is powerful," Ashley said. "So, when you look at these young people and listen to them, they're talking the language of history, and they understand the moments. These are college kids. These are kids who have had a chance to study history, to understand their place in it, especially going to a historic Black college or university, to be able to look at an event like this and say, I'm proud to be a part of this. I want to be a part of this." 

Behind the scenes is the president of Morris Brown College, Kevin James. He hopes this historic day encourages even more activity within the chess community.

"We just want to do what the students want to do. We want to be innovative and bring activities that students enjoy. And so, chess, all the data shows how it shapes you as a human being, how it shapes your academic mind. And so, this is just the beginning," said James.

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