On a rainy afternoon, 20 teens unleashed a river of eloquence in the 11th annual Black History Oratory Contest held yesterday at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Some made it look effortless, reciting their three-minute speeches with poise. Three speakers -- a football player with dreams of politics, a boy who plans to be a minister, and a girl who loves to write -- were the official winners in the field of 20 students.
Others made it plain that they had obstacles to overcome, such as a 15-year-old girl who had such a struggle to remember her text that she stopped and asked, "Can I try again later?"
"You have no idea how many times I've felt that way -- can we do this newscast later?" said emcee Vic Carter, a news anchor at WJZ, the Baltimore television station that sponsors the contest.
When she returned to the stage, after the other contestants had finished, Latisha Jones of Long Reach High School delivered a flawless performance, earning loud applause from the 100 or so listeners.
"I was just thinking, 'I can do this. I can do better,'" she said afterward. "When you know you've done less than you're capable of, you have to go back and try again."
Another crowd favorite was D'Antoine Webb, 16, a junior at Edmondson-Westside High School, who delivered such a pulpit-thumper that audience members immediately dubbed him "The Preacher."
"The ushers will be coming around now with the collection plates," Carter quipped.
In keeping with contest rules, students wrote their speeches, based on quotations from traditional African sayings or black leaders such as Booker T. Washington and Malcolm X. The top three contestants took home prizes of $100, $200 and $300.
Top honors went to Ray Baker, 17, a senior who plays tight end on the football team at Polytechnic Institute. Dressed in a pin-striped suit, Baker delivered an impassioned speech urging listeners to "go where there is no path," in the words of an Ashanti proverb. He praised boxer Muhammad Ali's decision in 1967 to give up his heavyweight title and risk jail rather than fight in Vietnam.
"He walked the road only traveled by those who do what they think is right," Baker said.
Baker, who will represent Baltimore in a regional oratorical contest in the spring, said he plans to go into politics, inspired by the television series Spin City.
"I want to be a press secretary," he said. "To tell you the truth, I just want to get paid to talk."
Second place and a $200 award went to John Paul McGee, 17, a senior at Baltimore School for the Arts, who spoke about the hopelessness that can overtake a teen-ager growing up in the projects, surrounded by crime, drugs and fatherless children.
Some young people feel they are "destined to be a no-no from the ghetto," McGee said. He asked his listeners to consider the life of television personality and motivational speaker Les Brown, who was raised in poverty and labeled a "slow learner" as a child.
"Les Brown is living proof of the fact that your past is simply your past," said McGee, who began preaching sermons at New Friendship Baptist Church in East Baltimore when he was 14.
Many of the contestants had represented their schools in the contest in earlier years. But Jessie Isaacs, a novice orator and, at 14, one of the youngest contestants, took third-place honors with a speech based on Booker T. Washington's words, "A sure way for one to lift himself up is by helping to lift up someone else."
Isaacs, a ninth-grader at Oldfields School, said she entered the competition because she wanted to show that African-American history can inspire white teens, too. "That quote just made me feel something strong," she said. "I don't know why."
The family of the top prize-winner sought out Latisha Jones and her mother, Andrea Jones, to say that the girl's comeback had won their hearts.
"You were nervous the first time, but when you came back, you were smoking," said Carolyn Scott, Ray Baker's aunt. "I hope you consider it a win, too."
"Thank you," the teen-ager replied. "I do."