New Bethel's History Room preserves Franklin family legacy
Detroit — Black-and-white photographs of a young Aretha Franklin performing, a framed Amazing Grace album cover and dozens of pictures of her renowned father the Rev. C.L. Franklin offer a glimpse into the past at the family's home church.
The images line the walls of the History Room at New Bethel Baptist Church on Linwood. The room was created about 12 years ago to preserve the Franklin family legacy and document moments in black history.
Many of the photos show the Rev. Franklin — a civil rights activist — over the years with notable figures, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., baseball trailblazer Jackie Robinson and Motown founder Berry Gordy. There are also several photographs of the Rev. Robert Smith, who has served as pastor of New Bethel since 1982.
"We're trying to keep that name C.L. Franklin alive," Smith said. "It means so much, especially to me, to the church. Rev. Franklin is the definition of preaching to the black masses."
Aretha Franklin was a daddy's girl and always viewed New Bethel as her father's church, Smith said.
"More than anything in the world she loved her daddy," Smith said.
LaDonne Johnson, a former member of New Bethel Baptist Church, was instrumental in pulling together photos and artifacts for the History Room.
Johnson said she was inspired by another church member, Carolyn L. King, who gave history presentations on tri-fold boards every year for New Bethel's anniversary.
Johnson attended a training session at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History on preserving church history. She said she started collecting photos from church photographers or members and designed the room, which formerly served as storage space for choir robes.
"I think the history is just something that is rich and lets us think about where we’ve come from," Johnson said. "We became more notable under Franklin because he was not only our pastor but an evangelist who traveled the world to preach."
Smith said the History Room often serves as a holding space for guest speakers at the church, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who spoke during service this past Sunday.
Aretha Franklin also did photo shoots and national television interviews in the room, Smith said. The church has offered guided tours of the History Room to different organizations and schools.
One photo in the History Room shows the Rev. Franklin standing in between Aretha and her younger sister, Carolyn.
Other historical photographs included the Rev. Franklin preaching at the funeral of Florence Ballard of the Supremes, Smith with a group of demonstrators during the Detroit newspaper strike in 1995 and a photo-shopped image of Martin Luther King. Jr. at a table with former President Barack Obama.
An enlarged, framed copy of a newspaper article written about the Rev. Franklin's funeral in 1984 also hangs on the back wall of the room.
Johnson said Aretha Franklin was fascinated by the room.
“Whenever she would come, one of us would go to her and see if she wanted to see the room at the present time," Johnson said. “Because from time to time, we would change the look of the room and some of the pictures. She was really impressed."