The crowd filled Pratt Street and lined the railings of the parking garage across the way, all awaiting a chance to watch four centuries of Maryland's African American history come to life at Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

With a burst of confetti and fireworks and a release of doves, civic leaders yesterday opened the $34 million tower of black granite and red brick that houses the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.

The first paying customer was Paula White, a Baltimore social worker decked out from ears to ankles in orange, her favorite color. She came, she said, to see "history in the making."

Billed as the largest museum of its kind on the East Coast, the 82,000-square-foot structure will house permanent exhibitions on black Marylanders both famous and unsung, as well as a special exhibit on the Henrietta Marie, a 17th-century slave ship whose remains were discovered off the Florida coast in 1972.

In a two-hour ceremony before the noontime opening, civic leaders invited the first patrons to look for memories inside the red-and-black tower.

Joanna Williams found relatives.

"This is my cousin Sandra and her brother Sam, when they were 4 or 5 years old," Williams said, pointing to a mid-century photograph she found on the wall of a third-floor exhibit hall. Williams, a videographer from St. Michaels, Md., is related to Sandy Bellamy, the museum's executive director.

"She sent me an e-mail the other day: Look for something, it'll be a big surprise," Williams said.

The museum is named for a Baltimore man known for his 1987 leveraged buyout of TLC Beatrice International Foods, which made him the first African American to own a Fortune 500 corporation. Lewis is also said to have been the only person admitted to Harvard Law School before applying; the Virginia State University senior was invited to attend after completing a summer program for promising black scholars.

An African American history museum was among Lewis's philanthropic goals when he died in 1993 at age 50; the Reginald F. Lewis Foundation gave $5 million to the museum in 2002.

Rather than cut a ribbon, museum organizers had 24 children take the stage holding squares of a quilt, designed by students, that will hang inside the structure.

In his invocation, U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black said, "May this museum help break down walls of pretension and prejudice, of rancor and racism."

Marina Harrison, the reigning Miss Maryland, sang the national anthem. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said that while hearing it, "I could not help but think of the black hands that sewed the star-spangled banner in the building next to this one." The flag, stitched with help from an indentured black servant, hung over the garrison that defended Fort McHenry and Baltimore in the War of 1812.

Inside the museum, the first visitors walked along creaky planks in a replica of the hold of a slave ship, and they peered up into the branches of a symbolic lynching tree as recorded voices read the names of more than 30 people lynched in Maryland from the 1870s to the 1930s.

"I guess the whole idea for me is always to look back, to remember, but never to go back," said Tommy Fennoy of Pikesville, who experienced prejudice as a youth in South Carolina. "I guess that I appreciate those who have paved the road before me, and that's what I see here. I see a lot of memories. I see my forefathers."

Museum curators purposely dealt with well-known Marylanders such as Frederick Douglass and Thurgood Marshall and with comparatively obscure figures.

One wall tells the story of Christian Fleetwood of Baltimore, a soldier in the 4th U.S. Colored Infantry who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery at Chaffin's Farm, near Fort Harrison, Va. According to the commendation, on Sept. 29, 1864, Fleetwood "seized the colors, after two color bearers had been shot down, and bore them nobly through the fight." Discrimination later drove him from the D.C. National Guard.

One space tells the story of Josiah Henson, a Montgomery County slave whose life became the model for Uncle Tom in the writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Another recreates the Chambers Barbershop, a nexus of African American life in Annapolis.

"I think it's beautiful, it's a blessing, and I'm glad to be a part of it," said Seana Coulter of Baltimore County, who stood in line see the museum on opening day. "Not only does it showcase the popular people we've always heard about, but regular people like us."

Amber Nick, 8, of Annapolis came with her mother, a second-grade teacher. Amber said she was moved by the exhibit describing the workings of a slave market.

"I felt bad for them, because white people weren't slaves," she said.

Kristen Rutherford, 11, of Columbia walked through the slave ship exhibit with her father and said she would not soon forget it.

"It was hard to see how they went through it," she said. "The shackles -- it must have been hard to wear them, because they were very heavy."

Joanna Williams found pictures of her cousins in one of the museum's exhibits. Williams is related to Sandy Bellamy, the museum's executive director.

Amber Nick, left, and Keilara Jones explore the Reginald F. Lewis Museum. "I felt bad for them, because white people weren't slaves," Amber said.