ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. (WJHL) – News Channel 11 is honoring several African-American community members for their contributions across the Tri-Cities as we approach Black History Month this February.
The first individual featured is Teresa Bowers Parker, a minister from Elizabethton born with a talent for singing that led to her to a career on Broadway.
News Channel 11 caught up with Parker on the Sunday before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day as she delivered a guest sermon at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Elizabethton.
Parker was born in 1951 in Elizabethton, growing up during segregation.
From a young age, church was a big part of Parker’s life. It is where she started developing her voice as a singer.
“They would let me do a solo here and there,” Parker said. “I was maybe six-ish when they would start letting me lead a song.”
Her father was a well-respected member of Elizabethton’s business community through his work at Carter County Bank, but Parker can still remember what segregation was like as a young girl in Elizabethton.
“I remember colored bathrooms. I remember colored drinking fountains and the bus station waiting rooms and having to sit separately in theaters,” Parker said. “I have a remembrance of before civil rights and after civil rights.”
Parker was among the first group of Black students to attend Elizabethton High School in 1965 following the signing of the Civil Rights Act. There were still reminders of the Jim Crow Era in the early days of desegregation.
“Students walked out of school one day because there was graffiti and the N-word on the building and we walked out,” Parker said. “There were a couple teachers themselves that had a little problem with our being there.”
But one teacher at Elizabethton High School saw her talent for singing and started Parker on the path that would lead her to the bright lights of Broadway.
In her upperclassman years, Parker’s high school band director got her a vocal teacher and pushed her to apply for a vocal scholarship for college. She won that scholarship, attending East Tennessee State University. Further guidance then led her to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.
“I had people along the way who encouraged me to sing,” Parker said. “If I’m honest, I never thought of a singing career as I was growing up.”
In Cincinnati, Parker performed in opera and theater shows. Then in 1979, she got her big break: an audition in New York City for the Broadway show “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
“I get a call one morning, my name is so and so, can’t remember it, but your audition is… and I auditioned for Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Parker said.
Parker went through three rounds of auditions before finally earning a role in the musical.
It came at a time when there wasn’t much work for Black people on Broadway.
“It was hard to try to get work there. If you weren’t in “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” there were a couple shows that came along that were Black casts,” Parker said.
Parker left Broadway in the early 80s to become a minister. She was mulling over an audition when she decided it was time for something new.
“I was praying one day about what I should sing for this audition, and I just really in me I felt I wasn’t supposed to do the audition,” Parker said. “I really felt God was leading me away from the theater and to do more work in the ministry.”
She became an elder of the music ministry at a church in New York with a congregation of other Broadway performers.
She also continued singing outside of church with choirs and smaller theater productions.
For decades, Parker stayed in New York metropolitan area. Outside of the ministry, Parker taught and eventually joined the administration at the City University of New York (CUNY).
There, she passed on the encouragement that afforded her the chance to study her passion to younger generations.
“Someone would come and I would train them and it was for the purpose of their being enriched,” Parker said. “I felt like God sent those people I needed to pour into.”
Parker and her husband Dan moved back to Elizabethton in 2019. She immediately reconnected with her old home town.
“It’s not just my quote-unquote immediate family, the church family, community family – a blessing to me,” Parker said.
On the Sunday before MLK Day, Parker delivered a guest sermon at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Elizabethton.
The building that houses the church was originally built by slaves in the 1860s, something that was not lost on Parker during her sermon.
“This building itself yes is of significance because it is a reminder, and as a reminder may it ever propel us forward,” Parker said.
Parker performed at the service with her family, joined by husband Dan, sister Loretta and nephew Jovan.
“It’s kind of ‘oh my gosh, I’m singing with someone on Broadway’ who’s had all these musical lessons,” said Parker’s nephew Jovan Bass. “She has accomplished so much within her life.”
After growing up in a segregated Elizabethton, Parker said it is a testament to the work of those who came before to join in worship with people of all races and backgrounds.
Parker said she hopes to continue encouraging and supporting others in Elizabethton’s faith community by delivering guest sermons in churches around the city.