Grand opening celebration

Songwriter David Allen Bunn celebrates the grand opening of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. (Sun photo by Andre F. Chung / June 25, 2005)

For Nina Cole Rawlings, yesterday's opening of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture meant a day of mixed emotions.

She was overjoyed to see the unveiling of the museum her husband, the late city Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, fought so long and so hard for. But she couldn't help feeling sorry that he couldn't be here to enjoy the celebration, or to see the 4,000 people who had bought tickets to tour the museum even before its doors opened officially just before noon.

Pete Rawlings, who pushed through legislation that eventually enabled the museum to receive $30 million in construction money from the state, died of cancer Nov. 14, 2003, at age 66.

"I know he'd be grateful. I know he'd be happy," said Mrs. Rawlings, whose husband's name was invoked several times during yesterday's opening ceremony. "This museum was his vision. A lot of times when you're not around, people forget you. I know he'd be happy."

Hundreds of people, black, white and every color of the human rainbow, jammed Pratt Street for yesterday's grand opening of the $34 million museum, named after noted businessman Reginald F. Lewis. The ceremonies began shortly after the scheduled 10 a.m. starting time. They heard the words of dignitaries, including Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, Mayor Martin O'Malley and former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume. They swayed and clapped to the joyful sounds of the Morgan State University Choir. And they welcomed a museum committed to telling the story of a people who arrived on these shores enslaved, but who worked and struggled to make something of themselves and their new land.

"We're opening a new path for our children to understand their past," said Steele, the state's first African-American lieutenant governor. Such understanding, he noted, "makes us stronger, in the knowledge of our diverse history."

Added O'Malley, who followed Steele to the podium, "We now have a place to tell our most important story ... a story that makes us await anxiously the next chapter."

Among those watching the morning's events was Baltimore native Njinga Nyamekye, there with her two daughters, Naomi, 10, and Glenda, 14. Like Nina Rawlings, she remembered those who couldn't be there.

When her parents, Nora and Elmer Byrd, died at their home in McKeesport, Pa., Nyamekye couldn't afford to bring them back to Baltimore for burial. But when she heard that contributors to the museum could have their family members' names inscribed on the building's Red Wall of Freedom, she saw the chance to reconnect her parents and her city.

"They say that, as long as someone can speak your name, you're alive, you're not dead," said Nyamekye. "My parents, their name being up there, has given me peace."

Museum board Chairman George L. Russell Jr., who spent 11 years ensuring the dreams of people such as Pete Rawlings became reality, praised the efforts of all those who spurred the project on. That included his good friend, businessman Louis J. Grasmick, who persuaded him to sign on with the museum project in the first place.

"Today, we pass the last mile marker on a very long road," a beaming Russell told the crowd. After exhorting all Marylanders to experience the museum's message of both struggle and accomplishment, he ended his remarks by noting, "Now we turn the page."

Still, even more than all the dignitaries who spoke, it was a pair of young sisters from Severn who said it best yesterday. Shortly before the official program began, 15-year-old Amber Spry and her 12-year-old sister, Aryn, took to the stage and sang, in voices loud and proud, the song "I Just Can't Give Up Now." Their message is one the leaders of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum hope Maryland's African-American community takes to heart.

"I can't afford to give up now," the sisters sang. "I've come too far from where I've started from."