New African-American Museum in Baltimore


Baltimore Magazine, 2005



This is my Neighborhood.


Baltimore’s striking new $34 million African-American history museum opens this month-the result of 11 years of effort and the leadership of two very different friends with a common vision.


By Ericka Blount Danois


            The planks under George Russell's feet creak as he boards a replica of a British slave ship. The Henrietta Marie sunk off the coast of Key West, Florida after exchanging its human cargo-190 enslaved Africans (100 other men, women, and children died en route) for a load of sugar, wood, and cotton.

The ship's replica is the first exhibit to be installed at the new Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, which opens this month after more than a decade of planning and fundraising.

Original artifacts, found when the ship was excavated in 1983, are also on display, and Russell lifts a shackle as heavy as a cinder block. "Children don't understand what hardships we came through," he says, well aware that ships such as this one once docked at the nearby Inner Harbor, where slave auctions were held. 

With the Lewis Museum opening, Russell is about to complete a struggle of his own.  As chairman of the museum’s board, he has labored tirelessly to make it a reality.  For 11 years, he has persuaded naysayers, met with deep-pocketed funders, and lobbied local politicos. It was not unusual to find him behind the wheel of his black Cadillac at five in the morning, heading toward Annapolis.

For him, the stakes were high, his mission was vital, and the clock was ticking. A 1992 study by the Maryland Historical Trust warned that Maryland, one of the richest states for African-American history, was in danger of losing that history. Important artifacts and records-many of them owned by private citizens were haphazardly archived and stored around the state. There was little documentation of the day-to-day lives of the state's lesser-known African Americans, and many oral histories were being lost as subjects aged and died. A central repository for such things, a museum would preserve that history for generations to come.

Russell, a former circuit court judge who grew up in segregated Baltimore, seems awed by the enormity and potential importance of the project as it nears completion. “I feel the museum is here because of some power beyond me,” he says. “It has to be.”

Come opening day on June 25, the $34 million, 82,000- square-foot facility will be the second largest African-American museum in the country, just behind Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History. In addition to a temporary exhibit space where visiting exhibitions such as the Henrietta Marie are shown—it will feature a permanent exhibit space, a 200-seat theater, an oral history recording studio, and an interactive learning center.

The building itself is impressive, as it both boldly and subtly reflects the culture it represents. The museum’s dramatic design—by Phil Freelon of the North Carolina-based Freelon Group and Gary Bowden, a retired principal of RTKL Associates in Baltimore—is imbued with the vibrant colors of Maryland’s flag: ebony, crimson, ivory, and gold, colors that also reference African heritage. A water feature near the front entrance symbolizes the ocean voyage made by enslaved Africans, and visitors will symbolically cross the waters into the museum to witness the African-American experience.

A red wall cutting through the building represents the rupture in one’s life, and change—both in the lives of Africans who were taken from their communities and the change to America itself. Large portraits of local luminaries such as scholar Frederick Douglass, activist Bea Gaddy, lawyer Thurgood Marshall, and freedom fighter Harriet Tubman loom over passing motorists from a large panel mounted on the museums west wall.

Russell remembers when the museum site was just a vacant lot strewn with tangled debris. He also recalls an area resident, aware of plans to develop the property, once asking him, “Why don’t you build it in your own neighborhood?”

“I told him, ‘This is my neighborhood,” Russell says, with a wry laugh.

SITTING AT BOCCACCIO IN LITTLE ITALY, RUSSELL IS WAITING on Louis Grasmick, head of the museum’s fundraising committee. As is often the case, Russell is early. Dressed in a navy blue suit, his framed glasses seem to swallow his angular face. When Grasmick finally arrives, he plops down in a seat and immediately begins teasing Russell about an article that appeared in that morning’s newspaper. In it, Russell bluntly criticized the O’Malley administration for its economic development priorities.

“My friend is driving me to drink,” chides Grasmick.

“Did I cause problems?’ Russell asks facetiously. They laugh and begin an animated discussion of local politics.

Grasmick and Russell have been friends since serving together on a Civic Center commission in the early 1960’s. They’ve been known to ring each other up in the middle of the night to continue their lively discussions. They speak frankly to each other on all issues, race included. Practically nothing is off limits.

When they first met, Russell says he was immediately struck by Grasmick’s energy, his ability to get things done, and his loyalty. Grasmick was impressed with Russell’s perseverance, and his ability to maneuver past potential obstacles. Almost 40 years later, Grasmick’s wife now refers to them as “Frick and Frack.”

Their connection may be partly due to the fact that both of them know something about overcoming odds. Russell grew up scrapping with seven brothers and sisters on Baltimore’s West Side. The family lived on a stretch of Fremont Avenue where, he recalls, ‘Everyone looked out hr each other.” His father was a postal worker, and his mother was a homemaker. He and his seven siblings all went to college, although many of his child hood friends weren’t so fortunate. As the neighborhood deteriorated, some went to jail, others died young.

Encouraged by his father, Russell knew he wanted to be a lawyer since the third grade He was able to attend the University of Maryland law school because of a landmark case argued by Thurgood Marshall in 1936 that led to the admission of black students. Still, he wasn’t allowed to take the bar review course with his fellow white students. But he passed the bar anyway and went on to become the first black bar association president, the city’s first black city solicitor, and the first black circuit court judge, among other accomplishments.

Grasmick grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Hamilton. When Grasmick was a teenager, his father died, and he was forced to drop out of school to help support his mother who worked as a domestic. On the day of his father’s funeral, his family came home to an eviction notice on the door. Grasmick went on to become a professional baseball pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies and the founder of Louis J. Grasmick Lumber Company, a multi-million dollar business.

When talk turns to the museum, Russell remembers that the first two times he was approached about getting involved, he refused. “I was busy doing other things and I didn’t know anything about museums,” he says.

At the time, the project was Pete Rawlings’s initiative. A long- time House of Delegates member and one of the city’s most respected and influential politicians, he was originally the driving force behind the project. Rawlings, who died of cancer less than two months after the museum groundbreaking in late 2002, backed the Maryland Historical Trust study. “He helped me get funding for my office to do a three-year survey of all the African American archives, museum collections, and even things in people’s attics” says Trust Director J. Rodney Little.

But by the second year, Rawlings had grown impatient and told Little he didn’t want to wait any longer. Little remembers Rawlings asking, “I want you to tell me now, what would be the best major dollar item that I could push money into?”

Little said there was a real need for a statewide facility, possibly in Prince Georges County or Baltimore City, that would collect and interpret African-American history and culture.

“Baltimore,” Rawlings, and the decision was made.

After Mayor Kurt Schmoke helped secure the site, Rawlings sought the backing f then-Governor William Donald Schaefer for construction funds. The estimated cost of 34 million would be a tough sell to lawmakers.

“Schaefer’s main concern was that if the museum was going to happen, it needed to be done right and it needed to have the right leadership,” Little remembers. [Shaefer] said, ‘I can get behind this if you agree to appoint [George] Russell as the chairman.’’

Russell had run against Schaefer for mayor in 1971 and lost, but both men gained a mutual respect for each other, and they eventually became good friends. Russell was also known to get money on short notice for projects. He raised millions of dollars for Provident Hospital and for Harbor Bank of Maryland. “I got to know him when we ran against each other,” says Schaefer, currently the state comptroller. “Even though I won, he really won because he became a millionaire.”

Rawlings and Schaefer agreed that Russell would be the man to spearhead the museum project. But—at least, initially— Russell didn’t see it that way. “I asked him to come in and see me,” Schaefer remembers. He said he wasn’t going to do it. I said, ‘George, you are the only one that can really do this, don’t give me this you can’t do it stuff.’

Still, Russell demurred. Frustrated, Schaefer contacted Grasmick, who he thought might be able to persuade Russell. “ [Grasmick] told he me it was a chance of a lifetime,” says Russell. “I would have a chance to do something lasting for the community, particularly for African Americans.”

Russell eventually agreed to head up the museum, under one condition “I told [Grasmick] he was going to have to do it with me.”

IMMEDIATELY, RUSSELL AND GRASMICK’S MAIN TASK BECAME convincing everyone else of the museum’s importance, with the legislature in Annapolis at the top of his list. They were armed with the fact that African-American tourists comprise a $25-bil lion annual market nationally, and Maryland’s tourism office projected that the museum would fill a void by attracting both heritage and general tourists to generate $9.5 million annually.

Russell lobbied hard in Annapolis, and in 1998, Barbara Hoffman—then presiding over the Budget and Taxation Committee—agreed that the state would fund $31 million of the museum’s $34 million cost. But the museum would have to raise $1.5 million before the state would spend a dime.

Russell went to lawyer Peter Angelos and told him about the project. They spoke in Angelos’s luxury suite during an Orioles game. “I told him I had to raise $3 million dollars,” says Russell, “and he asked me, ‘How much do you need now?’ I said, ‘A million five.”

Russell remembers Angelos didn’t hesitate. “He asked me what bank I was going to use and I told him Harbor,” Russell says. “He told me to meet him there Wednesday at noon.”

“So here comes Peter Angelos walking down the street with a check for S1.5 million. The legislature wanted to know, ‘Well, where did you get the money?’ and I said, ‘None of your business. What do we do now?”

What happened next would potentially alter the museum’s approach to its mission for generations to come. While raising funds to cover long-term operating costs and weathering administrative tumult (an executive director and curator had to be replaced), Grasmick and Russell grew increasingly frustrated after being turned down by potential funding sources who perceived the museum as simply a bricks and mortar project.

Grasmick shared those feelings with his wife, Maryland School Superintendent Nancy Grasmick. “I started reviewing our curriculums,” she recalls, “and I said, “There is a real absence of factual information being imparted to our children about African Americans.”

A survey conducted in 2001 by a task force put together by the superintendent revealed that only one in five Maryland schools taught students about African-American history and culture.

To remedy that, Grasmick developed a plan to incorporate the museum’s exhibitions into the curriculum of all Maryland public schools.  This partnership between the state school system and the museum, the first of its kind in the country, means that starting in September with grades four to eight, African American culture will be incorporated into the regular curriculum and not just relegated to black history month in February.  Eventually, the program will be expanded to include all grades, K through 12.

When I was in school we had Negro History Week,” says Russell, obviously pleased with the partnership.  “And all we learned was how fast Jesse Owens could run, about Marian Anderson and Joe Louis.”

Many organizations got behind the innovative concept, and money started coming in.  School systems from as far away as Oregon have called to inquire about the new curriculum.  “I think what it is going to do is create a stronger bond between our races,” says Nancy Grasmick. “There is going to be a deeper appreciation by African-American children in terms of their heritage and by white children of major, major contributions, so I just see a bonding here.”

“The education piece is what really made us want to be a part of the museum,” says Beverly Cooper, vice president of the Reginald F. Lewis Foundation.

In February 2001, Cooper read a newspaper article about the planned museum, and it reminded her of a meeting she’d had with Reginald Lewis shortly before his death in 1993.  A native Baltimorean, Lewis owned a billion-dollar food distribution company and wanted to donate substantial amounts of money to worthy causes.  One of the places on Lewis’s list of potential recipients was a museum and cultural center promoting African-American history.

Lewis indicated to Cooper that he would like to donate $5 million to such an institution.  That was the dollar amount the Lewis foundation gave to the museum, its largest private donation to date.

Loida Lewis, Reginald’s widow, is currently proposing a similar partnership for a cultural museum in her native Philippines.  Her plan calls for the museum to incorporate its exhibitions into Filipino public schools. “[Baltimore’s museum] is going to be a model for museums all over the world,” Lewis says.

CLIFF COULTER, A FIFTH GRADE TEACHER AT JOPPATOWNE Elementary School in Harford County, walks around the classroom.  A picture is projected at the front of the classroom.  “What do you see in this picture?” he asks his students. 

In the archival photograph a young girl with a brown bob pulled back with a barrette sits at her school desk facing another girl with a similar hairstyle. One girl is white; the other is black. Both of them project a mixture of fear, curiosity, and discomfort.

“It looks like almost everyday she went there someone bothered her,” one girl offers.

“I think this is a picture of a bla--,” a young boy corrects himself, “an African American and a white person talking.  I don’t know if it was allowed back then.”

He pauses and turns his head to the side: “Are they supposed to be talking?”

The lesson on desegregation is part of a pilot program featuring the proposed curriculum for the partnership.  When the museum opens, students will take the lessons they learn in the classroom and explore them further during visits to the facility.

“It was amazing to see how these lessons affected the kids,” says Coulter.  “Learning about black people besides just slavery really helps their self-esteem.  My kids are getting things I didn’t learn until college.  The kids realize how foolish segregation was; they realize a lot of their friends wouldn’t be here if it was still segregated.”

The exhibition the students will visit at the museum is organized along three central themes: “Labor That Built a Nation,” “Art and Enlightenment,” and “Family and Community,” that span from the 17th century to the present. The “Labor That Built a Nation” section includes a display on the Chesapeake Bay and tells the story of its black water men, oystermen, owners of seafood processing plants, boat builders, and others who helped make the bay into one of the economic engines in the state. In ‘Arts and Enlightenment,” visitors can, among other things, learn about legends like Chick Webb, Billie Holiday, and Thurgood Marshall and read letters exchanged by black scientist Benjamin Banneker and former president Thomas Jefferson. The “Family and Community” section includes information on segregated communities in the late 1800’s, a history of black steel and iron workers, and stories about everyday people raising families, going to church, and falling in love, while struggling with oppression and racism.

“We have to grab our children and bring them here,” Russell recently told a gathering of museum docents. “When our children come to this museum, it will act as a mirror to them, and as a window where they can see others, and they can aspire and hope.”

Reflecting the diversity of African-American culture, it should have widespread appeal. And that’s the idea—to cover a lot of territory.

Because the museum is starting from scratch, as opposed to starting with a prized collection from some wealthy benefactor, a large number of artifacts have been borrowed and collected from individuals around the state. “Many museums do that,” says Patrina Chatman, curator of exhibitions for the Wright Museum in Detroit. Chatman notes that “many museums don’t have a collection,” and that fact doesn’t necessarily hurt the Lewis Museum.

It’s more important, she says, for the museum to resonate with the community to keep people coming back. And it should not rely solely on an African-American following, because everyone has some connection to the history.

At the docent event in early March, Shirley Johannesen Levine recalled being on an Eastern Shore home and garden tour and watching in amazement as the owner of a small brick house lifted a floorboard in the kitchen to reveal an opening large enough for a person to fit into. The homeowner had discovered the hiding place when she bought the house and learned that it was once part of an escape route for enslaved Africans. Levine imagined someone running miles across flatland—her body outlined against the horizon—to reach this house, where there would be markings on the brick beside the door to let her know it was safe.

Levine wanted to experience the hiding place herself so she scooted her body into the opening. The floorboard was replaced carefully, and she pushed her arms against her body and pulled her shoulders together. It was nearly suffocating as she lay in the darkness listening to the sounds of the kitchen above her.

The experience, Levine says, sparked her interest in becoming part of the first docent class for the Lewis Museum. “I felt so fortunate to have seen this,” she says, having traveled from her home in Lanham to participate in the classes, “because I come from Nebraska and our history doesn’t even begin until the start of the Civil War.”

As EXHIBITIONS ARE STILL BEING INSTALLED, RUSSELL WALKS stoically through the museum. Grasmick is with him, and the two men step into the gallery housing the slave ship. “This is amazing!” says Grasmick boisterously. “We told you this was going to be big!”

Grasmick points to a panel of wall text. “This says that there were some crewmen that were 8 years old,” he says, appalled. “There were children that were part of this.”

Russell stares out the window, looking pensive, although it turns out he’s thinking about practical matters. “This window has to be covered,” he says, not wanting the exhibits to become faded from sunlight.

When pressed about how he feels, Russell pauses a moment. “It hasn’t hit me yet,” he finally admits. “This museum has the probability of being a life changing experience for people. It’s beyond my farthest imagination.”