"Aren't you George Russell?" one asked.
"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."