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Fans mourn Aretha Franklin at gospel-infused public viewing

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, proving, as one person put it, that she was a “diva to the end.”

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 were preparing for one more performance.

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 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.

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“What we wanted to do is be reflective of the Queen,” Green said. “It’s beautiful. She’s beautiful.”

Remembering the Queen of Soul »

Fans strolled by the casket, some in tears. One woman blew a kiss to Franklin, whose body 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.

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Growing up, Gibson said she heard Franklin’s music being played “all the time” by her parents, who told her “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, several women were singing her hit “Freeway of Love.”

Franklin was dressed in red, symbolic of her membership in the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. The service organization of predominantly black women planned a private ceremony at the museum Tuesday night in honor of Franklin.

The setting for the viewings 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 honored almost like a queen at one of the most important black museums in the United States,” Seniors said.

The Queen of Soul, Seniors said, was “a singer of the universe.” Yet, she added, Franklin also was “so unapologetically black — she was so proud of being a black woman.”

Sabrina Owens, Franklin’s niece, noted the museum had 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.”

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For all the formality, however, Owens said the viewings were 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 honoring Franklin. Called “Think,” it’s billed as “a tribute to the Queen of Soul,” and is scheduled to run from Sept. 21 to Jan. 21.

Related: Aretha Franklin once called The Times to explain some lyrics from ‘Respect’ »

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.”

One of those fans, Cheryl Matthews, never met Franklin but felt close — and hurt by the loss.

“She feels like she could be a sister or an aunt to me,” said Matthews, a 64-year-old Detroiter who attended the viewing. “She’s always been here.”

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Linda Swanson, whose funeral home is handling services for Franklin, said the singer had covered funeral expenses for many needy families over the years.

“It was nothing for Miss Franklin to call us,” she said. “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.”

Franklin’s niece emphasized that the viewing and other events couldn’t happen without a group she calls “Aretha’s angels.” Owens said that Franklin never spoke about her wishes, but that she hopes the services are what “she would have wanted and that she would have been proud of.”


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