Cornelius died last week from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Fans and friends of Cornelius started lining up hours before the public tribute was to begin at the Museum of Broadcast Communications.
"I really liked it in the '70s, too... and I used to love the line because the talent was spectacular," said Michelle Kirkendall.
The 75-year-old entertained and integrated audiences in the 1970s and 80s with his show. It was a small show that began in Chicago but took on a wider audiences and scope.
Cornelius gave a platform to African-American performers and brought their music to a more mainstream audience.
"The most amazing part was he owned the show. It was his, and that never happens, especially in television at that level," said Richard Steele, radio host and producer.
"He really changed fashion," said Bruce DuMont, Museum of Broadcast Communications. "He introduced new personalities, stars to the urban market. A true pioneer and broadcasting genius."
Cornelius united cultures with Soul Train. He brought African-American artists to an international stage. He knew talent and was a savvy business man.
"The Soul Train went through towns and cities, rural and urban, large and small, picking up passengers, transforming cultures," said Rev. Jesse Jackson.
"If we can take anything away from this evening, we can take away the fact that we can have a dream and that that dream can come true," said Merri Dee.
Longtime radio executive Marv Dyson says he spoke with Cornelius the day before his apparent suicide.
"Love, peace and soul do not begin to describe the man that was Don Cornelius. He was my dear friend, and I shall miss him very much," said Dyson.
Friends say despite his accomplishments, Cornelius felt slighted by the mainstream. In his passing, friends are making sure to praise him. Another memorial for Cornelius will be held in Los Angeles later this month.