These 1,800 teen-agers from 831 cities and towns across the country had come to the NAACP's convention in Indianapolis for a different kind of competition, an "Olympics of the mind."
They were the best and brightest of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's ACT-SO -- for Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics -- program. More than 50,000 high school students nationwide work with adult volunteers to hone their skills and to compete for over $300,000 in ACT-SO scholarships and other prizes.
They were students like Kia Jeannine Coleman, a poised 18-year-old who recently graduated from Baltimore's Western High School. Her essay, "The Mirror," a probing look at a teen-ager's quest for identity, was one of a dozen Baltimore entries.
There was competition in 24 disciplines ranging from poetry and dance to physics and computer science.
The teen-agers all had won local awards and expense-paid trips to Indianapolis. They competed for two days for Olympic-style gold, silver and bronze medals. Now it was time for the awards ceremony.
"There is a lot of talent here," Miss Coleman said in a crowded arena corridor as students lined up before the ceremony began Monday. "This is the majority of African-American youth. People need to get a glimpse of this. We can do anything and everything."
ACT-SO represents perhaps the NAACP's most successful effort inject its aging membership with new blood.
The program is also a chance for African-Americans to glory in the achievements of their youth.
"These are your children -- aren't you proud of them?" syndicated columnist Vernon Jarrett, who founded ACT-SO in 1978, asked the crowd of 6,000 at the ceremony. Market Square Arena erupted in cheers.
The location seemed appropriate because, in Mr. Jarrett's words, "ACT-SO is rooted in the firm conviction that blacks can succeed in the classroom at the superior levels of achievement constantly displayed by blacks in the athletic arenas of this nation."
The sense of pride was almost palpable. When an ACT-SO choir sang "Lift Every Voice and Sing," James Weldon Johnson's "black national anthem," and each teen-age soloist inspired the next on to new vocal heights, Mr. Jarrett burst into tears.
For all their talents, the kids were still kids. The young men wore fashionably baggy clothes, the young women showed off intricate hairstyles, and at the slightest provocation, all the competitors erupted in a chorus of the rap group Tag Team's "Whoomp! There It Is!"
Suitable black role models were on hand -- astronaut Dr. Bernard A. Harris Jr., former Miss America Marjorie Vincent, actress Holly Robinson and activist Dick Gregory -- and there was much talk of how African-Americans can inspire one another to succeed.
"As you stand up, as you excel," the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., NAACP executive director, told the youngsters, "all of our people stand up, all of our people excel."
At the end of the day, the expectant Baltimore dozen came up with nothing (five Maryland teen-agers from the Washington suburbs won medals). But most of the youngsters, who flew home yesterday were philosophical.
"The competition was really fierce," said Miss Coleman, who will be a Vassar College freshman this fall. "By the end of the ceremony, there was nothing else to do but laugh. There's so much talent here it's unbelievable."
Saxophonist Marvin E. Lewis 5th, a Woodlawn High School graduate, had the pleasure of jamming with fellow musicians in a hotel lobby. The incoming, 18-year-old Morgan State freshman played half a dozen instruments himself on the tape of his own jazz composition "Rose Petals" that he entered.
Sculptor Tia Michelle Good, a 17-year-old Baltimore School of the Arts graduate, declined an offer from one convention-goer to buy her Styrofoam work, "Mother and Child." She is headed to New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.
And Robert Pointer, 14, of Fort Washington, had the last laugh on the neighborhood kids who mock his love for science when his biology project on protein and fat levels in various meats took him to Indianapolis.
"We're all outspoken, know what we want, and we want to go for it," Miss Coleman said of the Baltimore delegation. "No one came here that didn't have to practice and work on their talents."
She credited her mother, Carol Coleman, for spurring her on with this motto: "If you can go this far, wouldn't it be great if you could go a little bit farther?"
Baltimore representatives in the ACT-SO competition in Indianapolis:
Delores Aye, 18, Western High School, Music Vocal (Contemporary)
Tomeka Carr, 17, Douglass High School, Music Vocal (Classical)
Kia Jeannine Coleman, 18, Western High School, Original Essay
Tia Michelle Good, 17, Baltimore School for the Arts, Sculpture
L Allan V. Johnson Jr., 18, Randallstown High School, Painting
Tanesha Johnson-Bey, 16, St. Timothy's School, Oratory
Marvin E. Lewis 5th, 18, Woodlawn High School, Music Composition
Robert Pointer, 14, DuPont Park SDA, Biology
Kareem Reed, 15, Baltimore School for the Arts, Music Instrumental (Classical)
Nikki Roberson, 17, Baltimore School for the Arts, Drawing
Janikka L. Simms, 18, Baltimore School for the Arts, Dance
Devron Troy Young, 17, Baltimore School for the Arts, Dramatics.
For ACT-SO information, call the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People at 366-3300.