Public begins paying last respects to Aretha Franklin at Detroit African-American history museum
'She is being honoured almost like a queen at one of the most important black museums in the U.S.'
The regal presence Aretha Franklin exuded in life was captured at her viewing on Tuesday, with the late Queen of Soul in a gold-plated casket dressed completely in red, including high-heeled pumps.
As Franklin's powerful vocals from classic gospel performances were piped through the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer looked as if she was ready for one more performance.
She wore earrings, red lipstick and red nail polish, and her hair was cut short. Her dress — with its ornamental elements and sheer netting fabric — was reminiscent of an outfit she would wear onstage and "something she would have selected for herself," her niece, Sabrina Owens, told The Associated Press.
Mourners poured into the museum to pay their final respects to Franklin, who died Aug. 16 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 76. The two-day viewing was part of a week of commemorations for the legend, who will be laid to rest at a funeral on Friday.
The Wright Museum is a cultural landmark in Detroit, where Franklin grew up and spent most of her life. Museum board member Kelly Major Green said the goal was to create a dignified and respectful environment akin to a church, the place where Franklin got her start.
"What we wanted to do is be reflective of the Queen," Green said. "It's beautiful. She's beautiful."
Green said Franklin's attire and pose communicated both power and comfort, as she did in life. The shoes, in particular, show "The Queen of Soul is diva to the end," Green said.
Fans strolled by the casket, some in tears; one woman blew a kiss to Franklin, who was surrounded by massive arrangements of roses of different hues.
Tammy Gibson, 49, of Chicago, said she arrived about 5:30 a.m. She came alone but made fast friends with others who sang and reminisced.
Growing up, Gibson said she heard Franklin's music "playing all the time" by her parents, who "told me to go to bed — it's an adult party."
Outside the museum, she said: "I know people are sad, but it's just celebrating — people dancing and singing her music." Indeed, a group of women were singing her hit Freeway of Love.
Franklin has been a constant in her life.
"I saw the gold-plated casket — it dawned on me: She's gone, but her legacy and her music will live on forever."
Owens said the museum has held services for many dignitaries, most famously Rosa Parks: "It was important that Aretha take her place next to them and lie in state there."
For all the formality, however, Owens said the public viewing period is intended to be welcoming and accessible for Franklin's legions of fans.
"She respected them — she understood that if it were not for them, she wouldn't be who she is," Owens said.
The museum also plans to stage an exhibition honouring Franklin. Dubbed Think, the show is billed as "a tribute to the Queen of Soul," and is scheduled to run from Sept. 21 to Jan. 21, 2019.
Many of the people you see are here because they were blessed by her big heart and her desire to reach beyond the boundaries of her own success.- Linda Swanson
Franklin had strong loyalty to her family and fans to her last days.
"What you see with her is what you get," Owens said. "She was a fighter — she fought this disease hard, all the way to the end."
Linda Swanson, whose funeral home is handling services for Franklin, said the singer had covered the funeral expenses of many needy families over the years.
"She would take care of the expenses — and usually in full without being asked or prompted to do so. Many of the people you see are here because they were blessed by her big heart and her desire to reach beyond the boundaries of her own success and touch others," Swanson said.
Owens stressed that the viewing and other events could not happen without a group she calls "Aretha's angels." Franklin never spoke about her wishes, Owens said, but she hopes the services are what "she would have wanted and that she would have been proud of."
'Honoured almost like a queen'
The setting for the public viewing could not be more fitting, according to Paula Marie Seniors, an associate professor of Africana studies at Virginia Tech.
"I think it's incredibly significant — she is being honoured almost like a queen at one of the most important black museums in the United States," said Seniors, who visited the museum several years ago when she was in Detroit doing research.
The museum, which had been the largest black museum in the U.S. until the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in Washington, D.C., in 2016, also hosted a similar public viewing for civil rights icon Parks after her 2005 death. Franklin sang at Parks's funeral, which was held at the same Detroit church slated for Franklin's on Friday. The singer will also be entombed in the same cemetery as Parks.
The women came to their activism from different places and used different techniques, but "in the long run, they were both fighting for the same cause, which is freedom," Seniors said.
Seniors said if she could attend the viewing, she would bring her eight-year-old daughter, Shakeila, who has sung along with Franklin's videos.
"I want my daughter to know anything and everything about African-American culture and history," said Seniors, whose father, Clarence Henry Seniors, was roommates at Morehouse College with Franklin's brother, Cecil.
"I would want my daughter to know of the people like Aretha Franklin — to be able to listen to that voice ... and hear that there is something special about it."