Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is describing his first brush with his personal family history and he is being disarmingly casual about it -- a chuckle here, a shrug there -- as if it were no big thing. But anyone from Mayor Schmoke's generation would find his story painfully familiar. "I really remember the event," the mayor said.
"We were in junior high school -- Garrison Junior High -- and the teacher was doing a unit on immigrants. 'Who the Americans Are'? Something along those lines. The class assignment was for each of us to go back and trace our genealogy as far as we could. Then we were to come back and share our family history with the class."
So, the young mayor-to-be went home and tried to learn something about his family tree. He found that someone on his mother's side had traced their history back to a plantation in Georgia.
Back in class, all of the other children began to share their histories, often going several generations back to Europe.
The mayor chuckled again.
"I was one of about four blacks in the class and at some point it became very clear that the black kids were not going to speak up. The teacher finished everyone else and still, none of us
"Finally," he said, "I stood up and shared what I had found. It wasn't very much compared to the other children, and as I recall, the other black kids were not very happy with me. This was a little bit before the black pride movement changed people's attitudes."
Beyond that brief encounter, he said, "I really haven't had time to get very deep into my family history. My interest never got piqued, except for that one time in junior high school, and even that was a class assignment."
Much has been written, of course, about the mayor's storybook rise to the city's highest elected office.
He was a star quarterback in high school. A Rhodes Scholar in college; a clean-cut young federal prosecutor who shocked the city's political establishment, first, nearly a decade ago with a successful, grass-roots, outsider's campaign for state's attorney and then, with a similar campaign for mayor in 1987.
But he also comes from roots that are equally achievement-oriented. And education has been a priority to both sides of his family.
His father, Murray Schmoke, 62, was born in Raleigh, N.C., the youngest of six children. The elder Mr. Schmoke graduated from Morehouse College in 1949 and became a civilian chemist for the U.S. Army at the Edgewood Arsenal and the Aberdeen Proving Ground. He retired last year.
Murray Schmoke's parents were John Hagan Schmoke, a carpenter who was born in Shelman, Ga., and Pearl Beatrice Johnson, of Weldon, N.C., who worked a variety of jobs, including teaching.
John Schmoke died when Murray was 4 years old. Nevertheless it was understood that all of his children would go to college. The eldest children in the family helped make it possible for the youngest ones.
"When my father died," he said, "it left a tremendous burden omy mother. Yet she always kept college in front of us. All of us were college-educated except one sister who died when she was 14, and my brother Julian who left school and entered the military and helped support the family during the Depression.
"And," said Murray Schmoke, "the rest of us have always thought very highly of Julian for the way he sacrificed for the family."
Mayor Schmoke's mother, Irene Bennett Reed, 59, was raised in Albany, Ga., and educated at Spellman College in Atlanta and Morgan State University. She received a master's degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania and works with the Family and Childrens Services of Central Maryland.
A cousin on the mayor's maternal side has been able to trace his mother's family all the way back to a relative named Jim Ross, who owned a fairly large plantation near Bluffton, in southwestern Georgia that he received from his former master. The Ross family eventually opened the first school for black children on the property.
Mr. Schmoke's grandmother, Fanny Ross Bennett, was a teacher and accomplished singer and pianist. His grandfather, Fred Liddell Bennett, had been a county demonstration agent in Alabama until the Depression. He was forced to surrender his job to a white man during the Depression, Mrs. Reed said.
Although Fred Bennett died while Mrs. Reed was still young, he passed his middle name on to the mayor.
"Liddell," said Mrs. Reed, laughingly, "the name the mayor hates so much. He used to say the only thing a middle name is good for is to separate your first name from your last name."
The mayor's mother noted that education and reading were important to her family, as well.
"My grandmother, my mother, and my mother's sisters were teachers," Mrs. Reed said. "And all the grandchildren, the entire Ross line, knew that going to college was a given. One way or the other, it was something that was assumed."
With such a pedigree, it probably isn't surprising that Mr. Schmoke became such a scholar -- whether he was conscious of his roots or not.
"The interesting thing," said the mayor, "is that my children are a lot more interested in their past than I was -- although they seem most interested in their mother's side of the family because of their relatively closer ties to the city."
The mayor's children, Gregory and Katherine, can find much to be proud of in their mother's roots, as well.
Patricia Locks Schmoke's family founded Locks Funeral Home on Central Avenue, one of the oldest minority-owned businesses in the state.
Her father, Joseph G. Locks III, inherited the business from his father and grandfather. Mr. Locks once ran for the House of Delegates.
Mrs. Schmoke also is related to Elaine Locks, who taught at Howard University and was one of the first black Americans awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.
For her own part, Mrs. Schmoke, an ophthalmologist, graduated from Western High School, completed a premedical curriculum at Coppin State College, and medical school at the University of Florida and the University of Maryland.