Mayor Schmoke returns inspired from inauguration of Mandela

May 13, 1994|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Sun Staff Writer

In a festive gesture, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke unfurled a miniature South African flag yesterday at Baltimore City Hall and celebrated the remarkable moment in modern history that he had a chance to witness firsthand.

Fresh from his journey with the U.S. delegation to the inauguration of Nelson Mandela, the mayor described in an emotion-filled voice his awe at the dramatic end of apartheid in South Africa, a day few African-Americans thought they would live to see.

Mr. Schmoke returned from his two-day trip to South Africa reinvigorated and recommitted to his first goal as mayor -- making Baltimore "the city that reads."

"What worried the people in South Africa most was not just the government transition that was going on but the fact that they had generations of their people who were not properly educated," he said at his weekly news conference.

Even as he heard of the hardships created by years of few educational opportunities for large numbers of black South Africans, Mr. Schmoke thought of the economic troubles and the need for school reforms in Baltimore.

"It did just underscore for me some of the things that we're doing. You know, we talk about making this the city that reads, but when you look out at a country with millions and millions of illiterate people and know that if they're going to make it, education is going to be the key," he said. "You just think about our own city and say, wait a minute, that's the same lesson that we have to learn."

Mayor Schmoke, whose half brother was killed in a car accident in South Africa a month ago, was invited by the White House to join the U.S. delegation headed by Vice President Al Gore and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-7th, also watched as Mr. Mandela, the once-imprisoned black national hero, pleaded for reconciliation of a nation that was torn apart by decades of racial hatred and rigid segregation.

The mayor had wanted to meet some of the students from the school in Pietersburg, the rural town where his 25-year-old brother, Murray Alexander Schmoke Jr., was a volunteer English teacher. However, the mayor was unable to fit it into his brief visit.

Mr. Schmoke said he was particularly impressed by the Market Theater in Johannesburg, once one of the only places where blacks and whites could gather freely.

Maya Angelou, the poet who read at the inauguration of President Clinton, gave an impromptu performance, said Mr. Schmoke, who described the moment as a "transcending experience." He plans to write an article about his visit and show it to City Hall workers.

Some of his joy was tempered by his realization of the struggles ahead, Mr. Schmoke said. President Mandela is already facing tough problems such as homelessness, as black families confined to segregated rural sections make their way to the cities,.

"It's going to be a very difficult process," Mr. Schmoke conceded. One scene left a powerful impression, he said. As he left the theater, he walked past a downtown office building in Johannesburg that had been bombed just a week earlier.

Yet he returned inspired. He said he wants to promote opportunities for Baltimore universities, medical institutions and businesses. And he talked about his renewed sense of purpose.

"It was a beacon of hope to folks around the world," he said. "You have to believe that if South Africa can make this transition and solve problems in the way that they have to date, that we can solve the problems in our own communities if we put our hearts and minds to it."

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