A teenage Cherelle Parker (center) is congratulated by friends and relatives after winning the Philadelphia Black History Oratorical Contest in 1990. Assorted Inquirer headlines from that year reference her win — and her connection with teacher Jeanette Jimenez. (The Philadelphia Inquirer via Newspapers.com)

Long before Cherelle Parker’s oratorical skills helped her win the Democratic primary for Philly mayor, she gave a high school speech so impressive, it helped launch her career.

Delivered at the School District of Philadelphia’s annual Black History Oratorical Contest in 1990, it discussed her troubled upbringing and talked about the power of literature. 

“I…was a child that most people thought would never succeed,” a teenage Parker said. “You know? They almost had me thinking the same thing.”

People who witnessed the speech said it left the audience nearly thunderstruck. 

“It was pandemonium. Everybody stood up,” Jeanette Jimenez, Parker’s high school English teacher, told Billy Penn. 

“They didn’t clap — it was like they saw a zeppelin come by. There was no competition. That was it.” 

Jimenez, who helped parent Parker, said she took the highschooler around to churches, where she delivered the hit speech to a variety of audiences. Its popularity earned Parker a performance in front of Philadelphia City Council. 

Listening that day was Councilmember Augusta Clark, who in 1979 had launched the speech contest, per the Inquirer. Clark took the opportunity to introduce the young Parker to fellow Councilmember Marian Tasco. 

That led to an internship with Tasco, and then a job — and the rest is history.

A teacher led Parker to her ‘redemption’

What did the speech say? Parker declined a request to release the full text, but over the years, excerpts have appeared in various news articles.

The speech was entitled “Native Daughter,” according to high school teacher Jimenez, a recasting of the title of Richard Wright’s novel “Native Son.” 

It began with a quote from Sojourner Truth, the renowned 19th century abolitionist: “I have been long enough trodden down now. I will rise.”

Parker spoke of her troubled childhood, according to newspaper reports: Never knowing her father, enduring the deaths of her mother (just before she turned 11) and her grandmother (when she was 16). Most of her relatives were drug addicts or alcoholics, she said.

Excerpt from a 1990 Inquirer article by Amy Rosenberg. (The Philadelphia Inquirer via Newspapers.com)

She came from a “home of people beset with downfalls and continually going downstream to their final collapse,” she explained, bringing her listeners to tears.

But someone heard her silent cries: Jimenez. 

“First, I was an irredeemable person. She is the one who brought me to my redemption,” young Parker said, explaining that the English teacher helped her discover Black women writers, especially the mid-20th century novelist Ann Petry.

“There’s Sonia, Maya, Alice, Zora, Ntozake and Ann, who are all friends of mine,” Parker’s speech continued. 

“They mold me because they are my role models. Where I am now, they’ve been there and back a hundred times. So when the road gets rough, pick up a book and read about a person who seemed irredeemable. And learn how our foremothers write about their redemptions.”

Drawn to sunshine, driven by anger

It wasn’t until Parker’s third attempt that she succeeded in making a splash at the contest.

In the late 1960s the school district launched its Parkway Program, a set of experimental “schools without walls” where students chose what to study and “used the city’s institutions and businesses as class rooms,” per the New York Times. 

Parker enrolled at the program’s Center City campus, which operated out of a Market Street basement across from Reading Terminal, according to former teacher Jimenez. 

After two years participating in the contest without making the finals, Jimenez worked with Parker to polish her speech and improve her delivery, the Inquirer reported at the time. 

Excerpt from a 1990 Inquirer column by Steve Lopez. (The Philadelphia Inquirer via Newspapers.com)

In 1989, Jimenez actually didn’t let Parker enter at all because she wasn’t ready, the teacher said — adding that the teenager’s frustration likely contributed to the passion of the final delivered version.

“She was furious. I’ve never seen such hatred in my life,” Jimenez told Billy Penn. “The next year I put her in. Part of that speech was to get back at me, too.”

It worked. Parker won the Black History Oratorical Contest and the citywide Women’s History Oratorical Contest. She received a $1,000 bond and trip to Senegal and West Africa sponsored by WDAS.

Mentored by powerful women

Jimenez helped Parker apply to colleges and her mentors helped her get financial help to attend Lincoln University. 

Councilmembers Tasco and Clark made a surprise appearance at her graduation, “not as members of Council, but as friends,” Parker told the Philadelphia Tribune. “You can’t imagine how good it felt to see them there.”

That summer she had an internship in Tasco’s Council office. Parker taught high school English in New Jersey for a year, and then returned to Philadelphia to serve as the councilmember’s public relations coordinator. 

“Cherelle is a very serious and energetic young woman,” Tasco told the paper. “She has very good communication and interpersonal skills. When she interned in my office last summer, I was able to see the tenacity to duty firsthand.”

Parker served in various roles in Tasco’s office until 2005, when she won a seat in the Pa. House of Representatives. 

In 2015, Tasco retired as the District 9 representative in City Council and Parker was elected to succeed her. She held the seat through last fall, when she resigned to run for mayor.

Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...