Stax Music Academy singers were among those with bowed heads during the invocation at the ceremony saluting Aretha Franklin at her South Memphis birthplace, 406 Lucy. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)
Zelda Stewart of Birmingham signs the registry that is to be sent to Aretha Franklin’s family. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

Patrick and Zelda Stewart were touring Beale St. Thursday night when they learned that there would be a gathering the next afternoon to salute Aretha Franklin at 406 Lucy in South Memphis – not a must-see site when they put together their travel plans.

The Stewarts are from Birmingham, Ala. They were among those who streamed to the Queen of Soul’s birthplace on Friday, the day of her monumental – and nationally televised – homegoing service in Detroit.

“We ran into a young man that works on Beale St. and we were asking him what were some of the sights (in Memphis),” Patrick Stewart said. “Of course, we had heard about Stax, which we are yet to go to and we’ve already been to the (National) Civil Rights Museum.”

The couple’s on-the-spot travel guide also mentioned visiting the birth site of Aretha Franklin. That took the Stewart’s by surprise.

“Of course we always thought she was from Detroit,” Patrick Stewart said. It’s amazing to know that her birthplace is here in Memphis.”

Zelda Stewart surveyed the house – adorned with handwritten salutes to Franklin –and the crowd that had gathered for a ceremony, which included several goose-bump-raising songs by the Stax Music Academy singers.

“I am lost for words about what I’ve seen,” Zelda Stewart said. “I never thought I would get a chance to see where Aretha is from. Being here in Memphis at this time is amazing.”

As some took to the house’s front porch to express impromptu words of praise for Franklin before the start of the short program, Patrick Stewart noted how is understanding of Franklin has grown since she died of pancreatic cancer on Aug. 16.

“What I’ve learned recently is how she stood up for people even outside of her faith like the Nation of Islam” Patrick Stewart said with emphasis.

Jeffrey Higgs, executive director of the LeMoyne-Owen College Community Development Corporation, watched from the sidewalk as the ceremony drew to a close. Earlier, Gebre Waddell, president of the Recording Academy of Memphis, had noted Higgs and the CDC among those who had helped to make the day’s salute possible on short notice.

“We wanted to do something quick, clean to show our respect for Aretha,” Higgs said.

There was an intentional move for diversity, said Higgs. There were two pastors – Rev. Eli Morris, senior associate pastor of Hope Church, and Walter Rayburn, pastor of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church, which the Rev. C.L. Franklin (Aretha’s father) pastored from 1942-44.

And, of course, “the Stax kids,” he said.

The CDC is the house’s conservator and is committed to preserving the house “and making sure everybody’s interest is protected. That is our goal and always has been our goal,” Higgs said. “It is our responsibility to make sure this gets done.”

Vera House and members of her family were prominent at Friday’s gathering. She raised 12 children in the house. With the help of community advocate Patricia A. Rogers, House recently has garnered mounting support for her desire to be intricately involved in the house’s future.

Environmental Court Judge Patrick Dandridge held a hearing on the house’s future on Tuesday and has scheduled a follow-up session on Oct. 16.

And while the uneasiness of the still-to-be-determined future of the house was discernible, Friday’s gathering was a testament to the unifying power of the Queen of Soul’s legacy.

“My mother grew up listening to Aretha Franklin, as most children of the 50s and 60s did,” Patrick Stewart said.

“She often talked about her so affectionately that we thought of her as a member of the family.”