George L. Russell Jr. was walking to his downtown Baltimore office last week when three men approached him.
"Aren't you George Russell?" one asked.
"Yes, I am," the 75-year-old attorney replied.
"We want to thank you for giving back to the community."
"Thank you for the museum."
Their words surprised Russell. As board chairman of the as-yet unopened Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History & Culture, he has been so busy advancing the project - raising funds, wooing movers and shakers, overseeing details, absorbing criticism when well-meaning plans falter - that it took strangers to remind him:
His mission is nearly complete.
After 11 arduous years, the museum, which showcases the triumphs and struggles of Maryland African-Americans, is scheduled to open Saturday. In large part, Russell is the man who built it. His charisma and persuasiveness, his steadfast clinging to principle, his fiery pursuit of excellence - traits that allowed him to prevail in courtrooms and at City Hall - aided his efforts to create an institution that he believes will address the social ills plaguing Maryland's African-American communities.
"This museum reflects everything about the hard road that we as black people have had to travel, but the thing about this museum is that we succeeded," said Russell. "We have to keep working to keep it open, but nobody ever gave us a shot."
The museum culminates a career of trailblazing for a man who was the first African-American to be appointed to the Circuit Court in Maryland as well as an appellate court in Maryland, and, from 1968-74 served as Baltimore's first African-American city solicitor. He became renowned for an unwavering personal vision of right and wrong - whether allowing the Ku Klux Klan to convene in what was then the Baltimore Civic Center, defending the city against the NAACP, raising millions to restore Provident Hospital, which catered to the black community, or publicly criticizing the powerful, from Mayor Martin O'Malley to the police commissioner. In many ways, the museum is a brick-and-mortar manifestation of that vision.
And to think that, initially, he wanted no part of it.
The late Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings years ago pointed out the need for a museum dedicated to the African-Americans of Maryland. During the early 1990s, then-governor William Donald Schaefer pushed to get the project underway.
Both politicians knew their proposal would face challenges. They also thought they knew who was up to the task. "Russell was the right man for the job," said Schaefer, who in 1971 defeated Russell in Baltimore's democratic mayoral primary.
"There were a lot of obstacles, mostly because of the cost," Schaefer added. "It was controversial because people thought we had enough museums. Then there were a lot of conflicts of interest about who gets this contract and who gets that contract. George is a lawyer and a good guy. He was the person to overcome all of that."
Russell turned the governor down, saying he knew nothing about museums.
Schaefer asked Lou Grasmick, founder of the Louis J. Grasmick Lumber Company and a long-time friend of Russell, for help.
"I don't know anything about museums," Grasmick told Russell, "but Governor Schaefer tells me that blacks don't have museums and statues. You're missing out on an opportunity to really do something for this community."
"OK," Russell replied. "But I'm going to make you head of my fund-raising committee."
Over time, Russell came to see the museum as his opportunity to provide African-Americans, particularly young people, with a greater understanding of and appreciation for what their ancestors have overcome - to show them that any goal is attainable. "This museum," he said, "will allow children to dream."
Day after day, he'd leave his Pikesville home at 4:30 a.m. to drive to Annapolis, set on making his vision a reality. He'd arrive early and lay in wait for the policy makers, singing the project's praises to anyone who would listen. And to those who didn't want to listen.
In 1998, then Senator Barbara A. Hoffman, who presided over the Budget and Taxation committee, agreed the state would fund $31 million of the museum's $34 million cost - but Russell had to raise $1.5 million before the state would kick in a dime.
The news left Russell discouraged but undeterred. He contacted Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, who had been a good friend since Russell was city solicitor and Angelos was a building trades lawyer.
Angelos contributed the entire amount. After that, other donations poured in from companies such as Constellation Energy, Legg Mason, Comcast. Then came a $5 million gift from the Reginald F. Lewis Foundation, created by the Baltimore native and owner of TLC Beatrice International who died in 1993. From there, Russell never looked back.
But it wasn't easy. The lawyer describes persistent skepticism about the project that came from all sectors of the city and state. "The legislature, when they demanded that I raise $1.5 million before the state would spend a dime, never intended to see me again," he said.
"More importantly, in the black community, in general, they just dismissed the idea that this could be accomplished for black people. They would say, 'Oh, sure, OK,' and no one realized it was true until they saw the building going up."
Now the museum has raised nearly $50 million. The 82,000-square-foot, five-story facility lies just blocks from the city's primary tourist attraction, the Inner Harbor. Designed by African-American architects, Freelon Group/RTKL, it is the second largest African-American museum, behind Detroit's Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History.
When the three men who met Russell on the street walked away after thanking him for such an impressive-looking structure, he smiled and thought to himself: "Wait until they see what's inside."
"Every child, black or white, should come to this museum," he said. "Every police officer should be asked to come to this museum. Every newspaper reporter should come to this museum, so they can understand the trials and tribulations of 60 percent of the people in Baltimore city."
When Russell joined the project, he knew little about museums. He began by asking Marylanders what they wanted their museum to be. The most frequent response, usually made by African-American mothers, became his mantra:
The museum should offer African-American children a vision of hope.
That's what his parents wanted for him. The product of a close-knit family, Russell grew up in a middle-class West Baltimore community where neighbors included the Marshall family, whose son, Thurgood, became a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Russell's mother was a devout Catholic who instilled rock-solid faith. His older siblings served as role models.
And his father: Sometimes Russell would hear him pray, "Lord, give me hills to climb." Then he watched as George Russell Sr., rose through the ranks at the U.S. Postal Service to become one of its first African-American supervisors. Inspired by his father, influenced by teachers who encouraged students to set their sights high, Russell decided in third grade to be a lawyer.
But he was aware that all wasn't right.
His father occasionally told stories about training white mail carriers in white neighborhoods. "People would come out of their houses and tell the carriers that a black man was following them, and then they'd call the police," recalls Russell. "The police would come, accost him, and he'd show his identification and they'd let him go."
Then there were the used textbooks.
In the 1930s and '40s, African-American children in Baltimore public schools were given materials that had already been used by white students. "I wasn't as conscious of it in elementary school, but in junior and senior high, we would get the books and obviously they were used. They had pages that were marked over. Some of the pages were torn." After graduating in 1946 from Frederick Douglass High School, Russell earned a degree in economics from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and, in 1954, earned a law degree from the University of Maryland. His seven siblings all are graduates of Baltimore's Morgan State. But Russell will never forget being forced to use second-hand books.
"We've talked about it, and it is extremely troubling for him," said Maryland Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick. "He thought that someone must have had this feeling that they were second class."
Five years ago, Russell and other museum board members were summoned to city hall after the museum's original architects were fired, a move that threatened to delay the scheduled groundbreaking.
Then Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke offered an alternative: A vacant building, situated next to the groundbreaking site, that once had housed the defunct Baltimore City Life museums.
"Why did I want to pick up a used museum?" Russell says. "That's been the story of my life."
He argued that African-Americans for generations had had to settle for second best. And he vowed to quit the project before accepting a used museum.
Bolstered by his resolve, opposition to the secondhand building solidified. New architects Freelon Group/RTKL were quickly hired. Their striking design won hearty approval.
And the once-vacant lot next to the defunct City Life museums was forever changed.
"I couldn't have lived with myself if I had accepted that building," said Russell. "I mean, we're in the pursuit of excellence, and it's that pursuit that has driven me."
Russell intends his museum to be more than a tourist attraction. There, of course, will be the typical tourist lures, such as a cafe and gift shop. And its 200-seat theater can be used for receptions. Indeed, the museum is expected to generate annually an estimated $9.5 million in African-American tourism dollars alone.
But it also will be a place of transformation, a place with the potential to broaden the minds of Maryland children of all races. The museum has partnered with the Maryland State Department of Education to develop a curriculum entitled, "An African-American Journey," that by the 2006-07 academic year will be taught throughout the state's public school systems.
The curriculum this year was piloted at the grades 3-8 levels in 90 schools. Next year it will be integrated throughout all elementary and middle schools and piloted in high schools.
"There is no other linkage of that kind with a public school system and a cultural institution," said Nancy Grasmick. "It's not a marginal part, but fundamental to the state curriculum.
Russell's delight is evident as he describes how the museum is expected to reach 900,000 students and 58,000 teachers of all races. He boasts of the more than 300 volunteers, the once-empty rooms that are now filled with artifacts.
"The thing about George Russell is the commitment with which he approaches the goal: There's no question he will succeed," said Angelos. "He was going to get [the museum] where it had to go."
Russell tackled establishing a museum with a philosophy honed by experience. "The approach I took to establish this museum reflects my view of how to be successful at anything, not just a museum.
"The first thing is that you can't separate yourself from the system. You have to become a part of the system, with all of its problems and all of its negatives. You must become a part of the system in order to succeed within it."
The windows in Russell's 21st-floor law office offer a postcard image of downtown Baltimore; within sight are buildings that mark stops along his ascent to the top of the professional world. Across the street is the original Harbor Bank, where he served as chairman of the board. Parallel to his Charles Street office is City Hall and the courthouses. Yet he sits with his back to the view, saying that he doesn't want to look upon where he's been.
In 1963, Russell was a member of a law firm that became the first African-American-owned firm to have offices in downtown Baltimore. Later he founded his own firm that in 1986 became the first African-American firm in the nation to merge with a white law firm.
The pioneering lawyer represented the police commissioner and argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, occasionally matching wits with former neighbor Marshall. While serving as counsel for state senator Clarence W. Blount; retired chief of surgery at Maryland General Hospital Ross Z. Pierpont; and contracting company Whiting Turner, he became renowned for his charisma and ability to win over the most vociferous critics.
"Whether it was a criminal case or a civil case, you considered it a good fortune to be in the courtroom to watch him perform," said Angelos. "He not only had the ability, but the personality, and in many ways he would light up the courtroom."
Russell, who now is affiliated with Angelos' firm, vividly remembers how African-American defendants would enter the courtroom, look up at him sitting on the bench and nearly pass out.
Whites, too, were taken aback. Russell recalls that while serving as police magistrate, a white woman entered the station house demanding to see the judge. At the time, judges often didn't wear robes and the desk sergeant pointed to Russell.
"Oh my Lord," the woman screamed. "You're the judge?"
"How can I help you?" Russell replied.
During his tenure as judge and city solicitor, he said, he was often considered, "too white to be black and too black to be white." As city solicitor, "once the city had a hiring problem with the fire department, and I had to defend the city against the NAACP, who accused the city of discriminating.
"I had decisions to make as to whether the Ku Klux Klan could use what is now the Baltimore Convention Center, and I ruled they could. The riots came in 1968, which is a critical point for me, and I had to set up a justice system so we could accommodate the mass arrests that occurred."
Russell believed that many African-Americans didn't understand his reasoning. "I simply knew I had to aim high. And again, 'Lord, give me hills to climb.' You make it easier for the people coming around."
He hasn't wavered. Last February, during a Black History Month event at the University of Maryland, he accused Mayor Martin O'Malley of trying to keep Baltimore's African-Americans "on the plantation," alluding in part to the mayor's stance in a public housing discrimination case, and criticized the city police department as being "out of control."
He has publicly decried quota hiring as a glass ceiling. When the concept of Black English became popular years ago, he gave a speech at then Coppin State College deploring the practice. And he has described Baltimore City's public school system as hampered by "a deficit in black leadership."
"Now there are some sectors that are flourishing, don't misunderstand me, for the bright kid over at Poly and City. There's always room at the top, that's something I've known my whole life. The crowd is down at the bottom, and it's these people I'm trying to address with remedies. This museum and its educational program can be the salvation of the black community in Baltimore and the state of Maryland."
Whatever he was doing, Russell was conscious that as the first African-American in any field, he would be held to stratospheric standards, and that suited him. In fact, he passed that mindset on to junior partners. He forbade dress-down days and bringing children to work. When people aren't accustomed to seeing someone like you in a certain line of work, he would explain, they must always be able to distinguish you from a layman.
Russell brings that attention to detail and drive to the museum. Staffers stop him along hallways so he can approve the size of lettering on signs. As he walks through galleries or along corridors, he inspects lighting fixtures.
"He's stern, no nonsense," said executive director Sandy Bellamy. "He carries himself with class and respect. He demands excellence and accepts no excuses."
As board chairman, when something goes wrong, Russell bears the brunt of the criticism. In addition to firing the museum's first architects, Associated Baltimore Architects, Russell fired executive director Nikki DeJesus Smith months later, a controversial move. Russell declined to comment on the firing.
Russell kept the project moving forward. "Something has got to replace the news of the deaths and the killings and the tragedy," said Russell. "That is the thing that is driving me. If you believe in what you're doing and you work toward it, things happen. You don't know where it's coming, but help comes."
His passion has been infectious. Lou Grasmick initially intended to raise money for the project then step away, but he is still on the board.
"I have heard from teachers and administrators the excitement they see and they're getting firsthand from kids exposed to the African-American curriculum," he said. "I tell you, this is just the beginning of this museum, and shame on the blacks and whites who don't support George's mission."
Russell's resolve seems steadfast. Recently, while dining with Grasmick in a Little Italy restaurant, the two men were accosted by another customer. "Why don't you build that museum in your neighborhood?" he asked Russell.
The man who has spent more than 50 years surmounting obstacles remained unruffled. "No one's ever going to marginalize me," he said later.
"I looked at him and I said: 'This is my neighborhood.'"Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun