To call George Russell Jr. a pioneering African-American lawyer is entirely warranted. He is a man of notable firsts — first black Circuit Court judge in Maryland, first black city solicitor of Baltimore, first credible black mayoral candidate in the city, first black appeals court judge in the state, and on and on. Stuart O. Simms, the former Baltimore state's attorney, says about the only Maryland lawyer you might put above him in that regard is his former neighbor, Thurgood Marshall. But it's also a substantial understatement. Few attorneys, white or black, tower over Maryland's legal landscape of the last half-century like George Russell Jr. His natural talent, determination, work ethic and refusal to settle for anything but excellence opened doors for whole generations of lawyers who would follow.
When Kenneth Thompson first met him, Mr. Russell was the larger-than-life figure in their West Baltimore neighborhood yelling at him and all the other "street urchins" to stop playing hide-and-seek behind his car, a chauffeur-driven Chrysler Imperial. Years later, the two would make history when theirs became the first major African-American law firm to merge with a white one, at least in Baltimore and some say in the nation. Mr. Thompson calls his former partner a transcendent figure who commanded universal respect. "No matter where you went in the state, you mentioned his name and you got good treatment," even in places like small towns on the Eastern Shore where a young black lawyer might not have been able to count on a good reception at the time, Mr. Thompson says. "Not only were they nice, I'd go back and drink coffee in their chambers."
Attorney Billy Murphy, whose father practiced with Mr. Russell, said he got his real education in the law from spending Saturdays with him as a young lawyer, an experience many others shared over the years. Mr. Murphy says he learned everything he needed to know, from trial strategy to how to charge fees. "He was a tremendous mentor to all of us, a big group of lawyers, and we're all better for it," Mr. Murphy says.
Mr. Russell's devotion to the law is such that he followed it in directions he might not have wanted to go, for example determining as city solicitor how to handle the thousands who were arrested during the 1968 riots, defending the city in a lawsuit brought by the NAACP or deciding that the Ku Klux Klan should be allowed to meet at the Baltimore Convention Center. But he has also served as a passionate advocate for racial justice, whether that meant speaking out against the Baltimore Police Department's civil rights record or virtually willing the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture into existence as its board chairman.
For much of his career, Mr. Russell focused on criminal cases, but he also played a major role in Baltimore's corporate life, and in particular, in raising black firms on par with white ones. He helped make Park Sausage the first African-American-owned firm to be traded on the New York Stock Exchange, and he was one of the founders of Harbor Bank. The decision to merge his firm with Piper & Marbury in 1986 was born of a belief that he and his colleagues "were good enough to practice at the highest levels," Mr. Thompson says.
And he was. Mr. Simms says Mr. Russell mixed great legal instincts with deep competence and fearlessness that made him "a larger-than-life figure." He had a gift for finding the relevant points in an argument and communicating with a judge or jury with a humor and deftness that crossed racial lines. But for all his natural talent, Mr. Russell was a relentlessly hard worker — Mr. Thompson says he had to get used to showing up at the office at 6 a.m. to keep up with his partner — and what Mr. Murphy calls a "preparation freak."
"George was going to argue before the Supreme Court, and I talked to him the night before," Mr. Murphy says. "He had his books all laid out in a well-organized, structured fashion. He said he was going to crush it the next day, and he did."
George Russell's legacy is vast, but it boils down to one thing: excellence so manifest that it cannot be denied. He was the first black lawyer in Baltimore that white clients routinely sought out. They did it not because of or in spite of his race but because he was that good, and that allowed all the African-American attorneys who followed him to compete on their merits in a way that hadn't been possible before. "He was truly a trail-blazer," Mr. Thompson says. "He had the big key that opened the door for all of us to follow."
George L. Russell Jr.
Born: March 19, 1929, Baltimore
Education: Frederick Douglass Senior High School, 1946; B.A., Lincoln University, 1950; J.D., University of Maryland, 1954
Career: U.S. Army lawyer (1954-1956); partner, Brown, Allen, Watts, Murphy & Russell (1956-1966); judge, Baltimore City Circuit Court (1966-1967); judge, Maryland Court of Special Appeals (1967); Baltimore City solicitor (1968-1974); partner, Russell & Thompson (1974-1986); partner, Piper & Marbury (1986-1999)
Civic involvement: Former president Baltimore City Bar Association; founder and former chairman, The Harbor Bank of Maryland; director BG&E and Constellation Energy Group; former chairman of the board of directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Baltimore branch
Family: Married to Marion Ann Russell; one son, U.S. District Judge George L. Russell III; a granddaughter and a grandson