San Antonio community activist mourns friend Aretha Franklin
SAN ANTONIO — Aretha Franklin heard that Taj Matthews was at a low point in his life.
Matthews, 42, a community activist on San Antonio’s East Side and the grandson of the late Rev. Claude Black, was simultaneously grappling with personal and professional crises last year.
On the personal front, he was going through a divorce. On the professional front, after nearly a decade of mentoring at-risk local teens, he had seen 16 of those kids meet violent deaths over a three-year period. He heard whispers in the community questioning whether his painstaking efforts were effective.
Franklin, the legendary queen of soul, would periodically ask mutual friends about Matthews and his nonprofit work. When she heard last year about his struggles, she gave him a call.
Unbeknownst to Matthews, Franklin was experiencing troubles of her own. Her health was deteriorating, the result of a battle with pancreatic cancer, which took her life last week at the age of 76.
“She was very kind,” Matthews told the San Antonio Express-News . “Me not knowing that she was sick, that phone call went on for a little while. I was kind of whining to her about what was going on with me.”
Matthews said Franklin advised him, “Take your time. Don’t let your emotions ruin it all.”
She also encouraged him not to air family conflicts in public, warning him he’d later regret it.
“Her thing was, ‘Everybody doesn’t need to know what’s going on in your house,'” Matthews said.
To be sure, Franklin lived those words.
While she bared her soul in the recording studio and on the concert stage over an incomparable six-decade career, she was relentlessly secretive about her personal life. Her interviews were generally cordial, but came with an unspoken sense that some boundaries — such as the fact that Franklin gave birth to two children by the time she turned 15 — were not to be crossed.
While Matthews and Franklin shared only a handful of personal encounters over the years, these two children of the church were linked by a family bond that goes back nearly 80 years.
His grandfather and her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, became friends in the early 1940s, when Franklin was a young pastor at the New Salem Baptist Church in Memphis, and Black was studying at the Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts.
The two men had much in common. They were born a year apart. Both were Baptist ministers. Both had long tenures at a single church (33 years for Franklin at Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church and 49 years for Black at San Antonio’s Mount Zion First Baptist Church). And both felt compelled to use the power of their ministries to speak out on social injustice.
After moving his family to Detroit in 1946, the Rev. Franklin became a superstar on the gospel circuit. Touring the country during the 1950s — with a young Aretha showcasing her vocal brilliance — he earned $4,000 per appearance, an astounding figure for that period.
Matthews said his grandfather called Franklin’s style — with its dramatic cadences and ecstatic emotional crescendos — “whoop preaching” and recalled that Franklin encouraged him to bring some “whoop” to his own sermons.
Franklin often invited Black to address the congregation at his Detroit church and hosted Black and his wife, ZerNona, at the Franklin home.
“There was a network of people who worked together,” Matthews said. “They worked together in ministry, they worked together in civil rights. Back then, of course, (African Americans) couldn’t go to a hotel, so a lot of times they would host people here and when they traveled they would be hosted.”
In the mid-’80s, while Aretha Franklin was experiencing a career resurgence boosted by her chart-topping hit, “Freeway of Love,” Matthews met her at a tour stop in Houston.
She and her siblings were at the home of his Houston-based cousins and a pre-adolescent Matthews observed the two families eating, laughing and talking about their church experiences.
“I remember she had the prettiest hair,” Matthews said. He also recalls that Franklin encouraged him to join her in an impromptu version of her hit, “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?”
His dominant memory, however, is more abstract.
“She had a commanding personality, because she ran the situation,” Matthews said. “Whatever was going on, you could guarantee that she was in control of it.”
Based on his brief, infrequent encounters with Franklin, Matthews came away convinced that she was a civil-rights activist to the core.
“She was very much for disruption,” he said. “She believed in fighting for the rights of the unheard. She said, ‘You can’t affect anything if you don’t disrupt something.'”
Matthews keeps reminding himself to heed those words.