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Joy, memories, and music: Detroit remembers Aretha Franklin

Sarah Cwiek

Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History began a two-day memorial and public viewing for Aretha Franklin Tuesday morning, and thousands from around the country are coming to pay last respects to Detroit’s own Queen of Soul.

The mood of the crowd lined up outside the Wright Museum in the early afternoon was upbeat, even joyous. With Franklin hits like “Rock Steady” providing the background, Yolanda Jack sang along, danced, and swapped memories with friends as she passed out free water.

“So many songs just make you move, and make you feel like you’re a part of a whole community,” Jack said. “Because as soon as they hear the song, they come singing with you, their favorite part…it’s just one of those things. Aretha Franklin would bring the whole group together, like she did.

“Look at us,” she added, nodding to the surrounding crowd. “Thousands upon thousands.”

Denise Ford remembered when her father heard her singing Franklin’s hit “Dr. Feelgood,” and bought it for her from the corner record store. She still has the album today.

“And my mother, whatever record she had of Aretha Franklin’s playing, that’s the mood my mother would be in,” Ford said. “If you heard ‘Rock Steady,’ my mother would be in a good mood, I’d be in a good mood. But you hear “Respect,” that means for the man to get out of here. You could always tell the mood of the person by Aretha music.

“We’re here to do Aretha justice,” Ford added. “Aretha Franklin, ongoing celebration. And it’s all Detroit.”

People from all over the country also came to pay their respects, including Darryl Coleman of North Carolina.

“As a kid, I can remember this music being played in my household, so it became an ingrained part of our DNA as a family,” Coleman said. “It’s part of iconic history. Plus her social activism, it’s definitely a part of African American history.”

Shaakirrah Sanders called Franklin a personal inspiration.

“As a young black woman growing up in Detroit, I don’t know if I would’ve thought I could become a law professor in Boise, Idaho,” said Sanders, growing emotional as she spoke.

A pink Cadillac, nod to a lyric from Franklin's hit "Freeway of Love," outside the Wright Museum.

“Her music always helped me study. It helped me focus, it helped me reflect on our country and our culture, and the struggles of my own family, including the women in my family who just adored her and her music.”

Inside the museum’s rotunda, the much quieter atmosphere was infused with the sound of Franklin’s gospel recordings, a reflection of her musical roots in her father Rev. C.L. Franklin’s New Bethel Baptist Church.

The crowd filed past Franklin’s gold-plated casket, where she lay in a floor-length ruby red dress, floral arrangements from family and friends.

Franklin lie in honor at the museum through 9 p.m. Wednesday. The tributes will continue Thursday, when a memorial concert will take place at Detroit’s Chene Park. Tickets for the event sold out in minutes.

Franklin’s funeral follows Friday at Detroit’s Greater Grace Temple. It’s invitation-only, but will be broadcast on local Detroit TV.Invited guests include childhood friend Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, and other musicians, along with former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Franklin will then be laid to rest alongside her father, two sisters and brother at Detroit’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

Franklin died of pancreatic cancer at her Detroit home on Aug. 16. She was 76.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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