Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A community developer is hoping to turn Aretha Franklin’s birth home in Memphis into a place that honors her soul music legacy and the gospel music legacy of her father, Rev. C. L. Franklin.
Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, died on the same date that Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, passed away: August 16. Both had a connection to Memphis—Franklin was born there, while Presley died there. Much of the focus on Franklin’s death has been on Detroit, where she lived most of her life, but Memphis is hoping that its connection to the Queen is not lost.
Days after her death, Franklin’s fans lined up outside of the small wooden cottage house in south Memphis where she was born to hold vigils and pay respects. Community developers are hoping they can turn that house into a place that honors Franklin’s life. The house is equally known in Memphis for its connection to her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, a charismatic pastor, civil rights activist, and gospel music icon in his own right.
Fans and news crews were stopping by 406 Lucy Ave. in South #Memphis Thursday morning to see the house where #ArethaFranklin was born on March 25, 1942. Some brought flowers and others wrote messages on the boards that cover the windows on the front porch.#RIPArethaFranlkin pic.twitter.com/GzisymHkvz— Mike Kerr (@mkerrmemphoto) August 16, 2018
Jeffrey Higgs, executive director of a community development corporation run by Lemoyne-Owen College, has been working to convert the Franklin house into something akin to what Graceland is for Elvis in Memphis. “We think we have found a way to not only honor Aretha but also her father, through the intersection of gospel and R&B music,” said Higgs.
The Franklin house is nothing palatial like Graceland, the mansion estate in Memphis that Presley was living in when he died. The Franklins’ small cottage resembles something more like the humble abode Presley was born in in Tupelo, Mississippi, which itself has been turned into a shrine. According to Zillow the Franklin home is roughly 1,100 sq. feet, which limits what can be done with it.
It hasn’t been inhabited in years and half of it was extensively damaged from a fire. It was in such disrepair that the city of Memphis deemed it a nuisance property in 2012 and slated it for demolition in 2016. It was spared that year after Higgs and preservation organizations promised to come up with a restoration plan for it. Higgs said the community groups he’s been working with on those plans have finally “nailed that down,” but the main problem with moving forward is getting the Franklin family’s blessing—a prospect dimmed by the fact that now both Aretha and her father are deceased.
“Our biggest roadblock is that we have not gotten permission from anybody in the family to say, ‘OK, yes, you can use her name and likeness, and we’ll give you some pictures and memorabilia,’” said Higgs.
The Franklin house is located near the south Memphis neighborhood called Soulsville, a once prominent, working-class African-American neighborhood where numerous legendary soul music artists lived and worked from the 1930s to the 1960s. By the 1990s, Soulsville, along with much of surrounding south Memphis, had been starved of investment and resources, and is now home to some of the most impoverished zip codes in the U.S. Higgs and the Lemoyne-Owen College CDC have helped steer several projects over the past decade to revitalize Soulsville as a catalyst for a South Memphis rebound.
Among those projects is the revamped Stax Records studio—where soul legends Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, and Carla Thomas recorded—that has been repurposed into a museum, with neighboring affiliated music schools. The CDC also helped save the home of blues artist John “Peter” Chatman aka “Memphis Slim,” and converted it into an art gallery and work space for musicians called the “Memphis Slim Collaboratory.” The community development financial institution Community LIFT has been instrumental in leveraging funding to make it all happen.
The Aretha Franklin house has been a little trickier to rehab, though, and not just because of ownership issues with the Franklin name, but also with the property itself. According to Shelby County records the property is owned by a woman named Vera House, whose family has reportedly been involved in its upkeep over the years. However, a court appointed the Lemoyne-Owen College CDC as the official receiver of the property in 2016, which means it has the rights to make modifications to it.
Also, this is not the first rescue attempt for the house. In 2011, several media outlets reported that a man named Herb Jackson was raising funds through a philanthropy called The R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Foundation to turn the house into a museum. There was a website for this, arethafranklinbirthplace.com, but it no longer exists. Looking at old versions of the site from the Wayback Archive, it says the museum would:
include a community room that would be utilized for meetings, tutoring neighborhood school children (possibly by local area college students), mentoring meetings and programs (to include local churches, government and business leaders, NBA players and other athletes). There will also be a snack area and gift shop. The most beneficial area of this project is how it would assist the community and interact with the neighborhood. It will not only bring tourism, but it will bring jobs to the area.
Higgs said he didn’t know anything about this prior effort, but his own agenda for the house has been at least two years running now. There’s still no firm finalized plan because of the ownership squabbles. The city of Memphis has stepped in to help, notably by placing a plaque in front of the house last year explaining its historic significance. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has also provided some legal support and “has been working back channels,” said Higgs, to gather support for the cause. The city acknowledged to CityLab that it was working with Lemoyne-Owen College CDC to help “stabilize the home,” according to city media manager Arlenia Cole.
“Aretha Franklin rose from a small home at 406 Lucy Avenue in Memphis to become the Queen of Soul,” said Mayor Strickland in a statement to CityLab when asked about the city’s plans for the house. “Today, we mourn her loss and celebrate the spirit she brought to this world.”
But the city wouldn’t comment on any specifics beyond that. The budget for the latest Franklin house proposal is modest—roughly $150,000, said Higgs, which shouldn’t be difficult to reach in a city that has staked much of its destination appeal on its music and civil rights bona fides. Graceland is currently amidst its own multi-million-dollar expansion that is being partially funded with public money. The city seems to be pushing back a bit on that, but the Shelby County Commission voted 7 to 1 in June to allow it to move forward.
Besides Graceland, Memphis also has the world-renowned Beale Street corridor, replete with venues that honor recording artist legends such as B. B. King, Ma Rainey, and Robert Johnson. The entertainment district recently had its own expansion with the addition of Beale Street Landing, a six-acre “multi-amenity riverfront development” that cost roughly $43 million to complete, covered in part by city and other public funds. The Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, is now a civil rights museum that expanded in 2014 and became a Smithsonian affiliate in 2016. It would seem that a museum commemorating a family like the Franklins, who were so instrumental in the nation’s musical and civil rights narratives, would have no problem finding financial support in a city that is central to both legacies.
However, the efforts to restore the Franklin house and revitalize surrounding South Memphis neighborhoods is not connected to those city tourist enterprises, and Higgs said that’s intentional. He’s concerned that those larger-scale downtown Memphis projects are increasing housing costs and elevating risks of displacement. The plans for south Memphis, including the Franklin house, are more “strategic,” said Higgs, to ensure that low-income and long-time residents will benefit.
“We don’t need anyone coming in gentrifying us, we know how to gentrify on our own,” said Higgs. “That inner-city movement [development] is happening all around us, but we’ve been doing this work for awhile now, so we know how to do it ourselves. We want to preserve the nature of what our community was and what it continues to be.”