Sitting in the shade yesterday with french fries in his hands, music in his ears and a smile on his face, Robert Willis proclaimed the first African-American Heritage Festival worth the wait.
The West Baltimore resident had been to AFRAM, its predecessor. He watched attendance plummet to 10,000, watched it move to places as inauspicious as a spot under Interstate 83.
But this new three-day festival is front-and-center at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Friday night, according to police estimates, 125,000 people stopped in for the music, food and exhibits - more visitors in one evening than AFRAM ever had in an entire weekend.
"This is going to be a first-rate event," said Willis, director of the Maryland Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement Program.
An annual festival since 1976, AFRAM was suspended last year by Mayor Martin O'Malley, who said more time and organization were needed to restore its former glory. He recruited Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who met with volunteers every Tuesday night for 52 consecutive weeks to plan a free event that would launch the summer.
Even the heat didn't diminish people's enthusiasm yesterday: organizers estimated that 175,000 to 240,000 passed through from noon to 9:30 p.m.
Standing next to the main stage in the afternoon, the driving beat of Urban Legend filling the air, Mfume said he is happy he took the job, as crazy as it had seemed to him at first. AFRAM had "imploded" since its heyday, in which it attracted 110,000, he said.
"We wanted to double what the other festival had done," he said. "We're probably going to triple it. ... It's just a great feeling in the air. I think people do see this as their festival."
Odenton resident Douglas Sands Jr., a 41-year-old Baltimore native, attended AFRAM years ago and decided to start a new tradition with his family yesterday. His daughters, Clarice, 6, and Alexandra, 2, got balloons with noisemakers. They stepped into the NAACP tent and saw likenesses of leaders - including Mfume - in true-to-life waxy splendor. They watched children perform in costume to The Lion King soundtrack.
"They especially liked The Lion King," Sands said.
Outside, NAACP volunteers registered passers-by to vote, and "Baltimore Believe" volunteers urged people to sign a declaration of independence from drugs. Families strolled past a 6-by-9-foot mural depicting the African-American struggle; the 200 notable people portrayed included Rosa Parks and Oprah Winfrey.
"It's a document of achievement," said Tehuti A. Imhotep, a Baltimore County schoolteacher who provided research for the mural, painted by local artist Cornell Barnes.
Nearby, a troupe of young dancers tapped in unison, their feet pounding like a percussion section.
"Ooooh, go girl," cried Rosa Taylor of Aberdeen, who had never been to AFRAM and quickly decided that this new festival was "absolutely magnificent."
Deputy Mayor Jeanne D. Hitchcock, a member of the festival's steering committee, said a key selling point for vendors and sponsors was the drawing power of the entertainment, particularly the headliners.
R&B singer/songwriter Erykah Badu performed Friday night, R&B group Frankie Beverly and Maze was scheduled to appear yesterday evening, and soul music singer/songwriter Brian McKnight will hit the stage at 6:40 p.m. today.
Organizers want to keep the African-American Heritage Festival at Camden Yards. But a potential problem - one AFRAM never would have faced - could arise: The event is in danger of outgrowing the grounds, which can accommodate 175,000 people.
If attendance swells, "we're going to have to find a bigger place," Mfume said, laughing.
The African-American Heritage Festival runs today from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.