George Russell's vision

July 23, 2002

THROUGHOUT Maryland, African-American family historians -- custodians of precious documents, collectors of memorabilia and writers -- assemble the history of a proud people.

Pride -- and fear -- drive them. They want to preserve the evidence of a community that overcame chattel slavery and the barriers of Jim Crow. Who will do it if they do not?

Some have opened their collections for public viewing, but such enterprises are difficult to maintain. Something more has been needed, something on a grander scale, something that would endure.

One of these concerned Marylanders -- Baltimore lawyer George L. Russell Jr. -- thought he had the answer: an African-American museum. And he knew people who could help him execute the plan: former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Gov. Parris Glendening, Orioles principal owner Peter Angelos, businessman Louis J. Grasmick, and the estate of Reginald F. Lewis, a wealthy black Baltimorean who also dreamed of a black history museum.

Now, after nine years of lobbying and fundraising, Mr. Russell waits with barely contained excitement for the September start of construction on the Maryland Museum of African-American History and Culture, which will be named for its chief benefactor, the late Mr. Lewis. He rose from poverty in the Rosemont neighborhood to the head of a billion-dollar corporation. His family gave $5 million for the museum.

More work remains. Mr. Russell hopes to raise a total of $20 million -- more than twice the $9 million already in hand, not counting the state's grant of $23 million. State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, co-chair of the museum with Mr. Russell, is preparing a black history curriculum for use in conjunction with it.

Scheduled to open in 2004 at Pratt and President streets, the museum will have some 400 items, including such things as the freedom papers of a former slave, carefully safeguarded by that slave's grandson, now 104. The papers and their cylindrical carrying case were given to the museum during a meeting of the museum's board of directors. Mr. Russell says his board colleagues, some of them in tears, at that moment saw more clearly than ever the museum's potential for linking this and future generations to the reality of slavery, the struggle for freedom and the continuing pursuit of equality.

Mr. Russell's many contributions to Baltimore and to Maryland now include his inspirational leadership on this vitally important new institution.

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