Although none of the debaters were born at the time of the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education, they were eager to discuss the merits of the case and its impact on American society.
The debate was part of Heritage Village's program commemorating the 50th anniversary of the landmark ruling, which held that segregation in public schools was a violation of the 14th amendment. Brown reversed the "separate but equal" doctrine the Supreme Court had upheld since 1896.
Saturday's debate was a part of a series of special programs and exhibits Heritage Village is presenting about the effects of local and national desegregation. The program began Aug. 28 and continues through Oct. 10.
Heritage Village director Jan Luth said her staff thought the debate would be a good way to involve high school students.
"This topic has significant relevance today in Pinellas County," she said. "We wanted young people to explore and debate it using the exhibit as a backdrop."
Debate teams from Pinellas Park and Tarpon Springs high schools participated. Pinellas Park senior Ciara Palumbo, 17, read the resolution, or formal statement, of what the debate was about: Brown vs. Board of Education addressed inequality with desegregation and helped improve society in a considerable way.
Palumbo, along with her teammate Jaclyn Palazzolo, 17, made up the "pro" side and argued that this resolution was true.
Their Tarpon Springs counterparts, Alyssa Gorrel, 16, and Evan Kidd, 17, made up the "con" team.
"We took the opposite side of the proposed topic," said Kidd who had reviewed case law to prepare for the debate. His team argued that Brown had not gone far enough to solve socioeconomic inequalities.
Both teams were armed with statistics and quotes from legal experts and civil rights activists. A formal debate format was used that included timed cross-examinations and rebuttals.
Darryl Rouson, president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP, served as moderator. "I'm excited about what we're doing here today. I'm also pained," he said.
Discussion of the progress that has been made since Brown was countered by the problems that remain, he said.
Rouson and the debaters spoke of the education gap that still exists between black and white students.
Palumbo and Palazzolo said that Brown was a critical step in addressing racial inequalities and emphasized the advances that have been made in the past 50 years.
Gorrel and Kidd argued Brown was a cosmetic solution to a much deeper problem. Both teams appeared comfortable with the debate format and used the two-minute break before final statements to strengthen their arguments.
Helene Adler, speech teacher for the Criminal Justice Academy at Pinellas Park High and debate coach, said that debate is a sport that exercises the mind. "We encourage critical thinking," she said.
"Debate has fallen by the wayside in many schools," said Carol Puniska, debate club sponsor and language arts teacher at Tarpon Springs High School. Her school dropped its debate class this year.
Gorrel acknowledged there are "maybe three people at school that like debate."
"There's a huge problem of apathy. People my age don't realize how social issues affect their everyday life," she said.
After the final round of the debate, Rouson addressed the audience of about 25 people. "I don't know about you, but I got goose bumps hearing these students. It excites me to see young people involved," he said.
Adella Brown of Tarpon Springs brought her granddaughters, Brittany and Nikita Legon, to hear the debate and see the exhibit. Nikita, 14 and a student at Tarpon Springs High School, said her grandmother wants them to learn about their culture.
"My granddaughters have always gone to predominantly white schools where there's not much exposure to African-American culture," Brown said.
Brittany, 11, attends Carwise Middle School in Palm Harbor. Brittany said that she learned something from the debate.
"I hope they learned something. We will discuss it in the car on the way home," Brown said.
In closing remarks, Professor Robert Bickel of Stetson College of Law said that both debate teams were correct in their arguments.
"Yes, (Brown) was a great start and, yes, it didn't go far enough."
As part of their program, Bickel will be leading a roundtable discussion at 1 p.m. on Oct. 2 at Heritage Village about the integration of Pinellas County schools.
"It's good to celebrate the legal victory of Brown, but there is more to do."