Gala will help realize dream of black museum

December 11, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

About a year ago, attorney George L. Russell Jr. and businessman Louis Grasmick have this idea, to put on a big-time fund-raiser for the nascent African-American history museum they've been shepherding for nearly a decade. Maybe, they thought, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra might be willing to help.

At first, BSO President John Gidwitz wasn't all that encouraging. "He said, `Look at how many requests I've got,'" recalls Russell, holding his hand a good foot off the desk, approximating the pile of letters to which Gidwitz was referring. "But then he thought about it, and he said yes - enthusiastically."

Enthusiasm is one thing Russell, board chair and founding visionary of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, has had little trouble raising. Another thing is money, whether it be a five-year, $5 million endowment grant from the New York-based Reginald F. Lewis Foundation or a $1.5 million check from Peter Angelos.

Tonight, both enthusiasm and money will be on display at the Meyerhoff, where the BSO will be joined by Bill Cosby, James Earl Jones, Montel Williams, singer Nnenna Freelon, the Morgan State University Choir and the Sandtown Children of Praise in a sold-out fund-raising gala for the museum, which is slated to open next year.

By yesterday afternoon, more than 2,400 tickets had been sold for the gala, at prices ranging from $75 to $1,000. The festivities begin tonight at 8.

"When people find what this museum is doing, they respond," Russell said yesterday, seated in his office at Angelos' law firm. "After we put together this unbelievable talent, everybody was excited."

That includes Russell, 74, a fixture on Baltimore's social and political scene since 1966, when he was appointed to the circuit court bench (he later served as city solicitor and ran for mayor). Although accustomed enough to this sort of thing to not get too excited, it's hard for Russell to mask his pleasure over the museum's growing success.

"It gives me a deep sense of completion and satisfaction," says Russell. "We're only here on this earth for so long, and I don't want to leave without making a difference."

The $33 million museum, to be housed in a building under construction at the corner of Pratt and President streets, will include 82,000 square feet of exhibit space, making it the country's second-largest African-American history museum (only Detroit's Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History is bigger). It will be named for Reginald F. Lewis, the late Baltimore-born philanthropist and business leader.

Russell says the museum is still on target for a September 2004 opening. But as far as he's concerned, that day can't come soon enough - mostly because he says there's a real societal need for such a facility. He's especially proud that the museum will focus on education, particularly through a statewide curriculum being developed under the auspices of state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

"The white child who comes will see black people in a different light, they'll see our history," Russell says. "But more important is the young black child, maybe they can be inspired, and they can understand ... that poverty is not a bar to success.

"In this town, in this state, and perhaps in America, for the African-American child ... for most of them, the only escape from their condition, in their minds, is through criminal behavior. It's that child that this museum is directed at."

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