Thousands pay respects to Queen of Soul
Detroit — For hours Tuesday, thousands fixed their eyes on the singer whose name alone commanded global attention.
And to many mourners who paid their respects to Aretha Franklin at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, glimpsing a beloved icon with legions of fans also meant reliving countless memories, musical or otherwise.
Some queuing up for the viewing were as emotional as Tommy Kraus, who admits that after the Queen of Soul died from pancreatic cancer Aug. 16 at age 76, hearing her single “Freeway of Love” was no longer the same.
“I’ve been listening to her since I was a baby,” said Kraus of Detroit, who attended with his girlfriend, Christine Zim. “My mom would drive around listening to it in the station wagon… Aretha, to me, transcended many generations.”
That influence was evident throughout the 12-hour public viewing at the museum, the first of two in which Franklin lies in repose there.
From millennials to tourists and multiple generations of families for whom Franklin’s songs were the soundtrack to their lives, more than 3,000 flocked to pay their respects.
Among them was LaTonya McIntyre, 43, who booked a plane ticket from Las Vegas as soon as she learned about the visitation. She arrived at the museum on Monday afternoon and, after camping out with her rose-pink blanket and belongings in the balmy night, ended up securing the coveted first-in-line spot.
Their aim was simple: honoring a performer who inspired, nurtured and comforted untold numbers of listeners in her lifetime.
“I’ve always wanted to see her in concert and never got a chance to, so I’m here to pay my respects now,” McIntyre said. “She musically raised me.”
Detroiter Dwane Gooch, who attended the event with McIntyre, noted the numerous out-of-towners surrounding them: a woman from Austin, Texas, sisters from St. Louis. Asked why that might be, he said: “They’re diehard fans. That’s the only thing I can come up with.”
Whether descending on the rotunda from near or far, those attending the viewing received from Swanson Funeral Home a card with Franklin’s name, image and the words “forever our queen” and “RESPECT.”
There was a ban on photography, audio recordings and video. Meanwhile, water bottles were handed out to help the throng queued behind metal barriers stay hydrated as temperatures soared near 90 degrees under sunny skies.
Some fans donned shirts adorned with Franklin’s name or face while waiting to pass the singer’s gold casket flanked by large bouquets of pastel-colored roses. Up close, Franklin was adorned in a crimson dress, matching earrings and red shoes with red bottoms.
Along with others who neared the display, Kraus and Zim remarked how much Franklin appeared as she did in life: like a diva.
“She has a big smile on her face,” Zim said.
To Kraus, sharing the visitation for one of Detroit’s most famous residents was a milestone.
“I’m grateful to the city and to her family for letting us be a part of it,” Kraus said. “They didn’t have to.”
Andra Reddick brought her 6-month-old daughter, Aiyah, with her to pay respects.
“I grew up with my mom, my grandma being the biggest fans,” said Reddick, 34, of Detroit. “I wanted to come here for my grandma so I could give her feedback on how she looked because she’s not able to make it.”
The atmosphere was a boon for the many who briskly proceeded through the line and into the rotunda.
“When you’re in there, they’re playing her gospel music, so it touches your soul,” said Detroiter Crystal Spratt-Walter, who attended with her mother, Doris Spratt. “By her being as beautiful as she was, it lifted your spirit. She looked so beautiful.”
Echoing Franklin’s legendary, trademark song, Spratt added: “Her respect is being shown.”
That song was a favorite for Mary Eatmon, 87, who had brushed shoulders with history before. She was the seventh woman to drive a bus for what’s now known as the Detroit Department of Transportation.
On Tuesday, she was the ninth in line to be waved through when the museum’s doors opened. Eatmon was inspired to arrive early since she felt rushed through the line at the viewing for Rosa Parks in 2005, to the point “I barely got to see her,” she said.
This time, fellow viewers saved her spot, as they did for others who needed to briefly leave to eat, stretch their legs or use the portable toilets during their wait.
“People are sad, but they’re not sad-sad,” Eatmon said. “It’s like a reunion. There’s just a good feeling about it. People are so sweet to each other.”
The reason, she figured, was as recognizable as Franklin’s powerful vocals.
“We know her. What you give out is what you get back,” Eatmon said. “This must show she put out a lot of good stuff. Because people from everywhere have showed up. People don’t have to sacrifice their time or comfort, but they want to.”