Who Was Aretha Franklin's Mother?

It's often the case that musical talent runs in families. Aretha Franklin will always be known as the "Queen of Soul" and one of the most talented and famous singers of all time, as well as a gifted pianist and songwriter. According to iconic gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, Aretha's mother, Barbara Siggers Franklin, was one of the finest gospel singers in the United States and an accomplished piano player in her own right. 

Barbara Siggers was born in Shelby, Mississippi in 1917 (per The Sun). According to Smooth Radio, she married pastor C.L. Franklin in 1936, and the couple went on to have four children: Erma (born in 1938), Cecil (born in 1940), Aretha (born in 1942), and Carolyn (born in 1944). Barbara also had a child from a previous relationship, Vaughn, who was born in 1934 and adopted by C.L. after they married. Per the Academy of Achievement, the family started out in Memphis, Tennessee before moving to Buffalo, New York, followed by Detroit, Michigan.

Barbara's Stormy Marriage To C.L. Franklin

In addition to her roles as wife and mother, Barbara Siggers was also active in the musical activities at Detroit's New Bethel Baptist Church, where her husband, C.L. Franklin (above), preached for 33 years (via Detroit Free Press). Per the Detroit Historical Society, C.L. Franklin became known throughout the United States as the man with the "Million Dollar Voice" after his sermons' thoughtful content and his gifted oratory style led to his work being broadcast on the radio and recorded and distributed via LP records. He also had a celebrated singing voice and toured as a gospel singer. He formed the group C.L. Franklin's Gospel Caravan, and with them, his daughter Aretha got her start as a singer and performer.

C.L. and Barbara separated in 1948 due to C.L.'s ongoing infidelities, according to Smooth Radio. Barbara relocated back to Buffalo, New York, where her own mother lived, bringing her son Vaughn and leaving Erma, Cecil, Aretha, and Caroline to be raised by their father. C.L. and Barbara never officially divorced.

Barbara Franklin Left Her Children With Their Father

In the 2014 Aretha Franklin biography "Respect" (via Vanity Fair) — written by David Ritz and later adapted into the movie of the same title — the singer's brother Cecil opined that Barbara Franklin's return to Buffalo "broke Aretha's little heart." Her sister Caroline noted "Aretha was a severely shy and withdrawn child who was especially close to her mother ... Aretha and I shared a room, and after Mother left I saw her cry her eyes out for days at a time ... Days before those trips to see Mother, Aretha would have her little bag packed and be ready to go."

As reported by Smooth Radio, Barbara Franklin worked in a music store, gave private music lessons, and eventually trained to be a nurse's aide. Aretha Franklin herself spoke out against the trope that Barbara Franklin abandoned her children upon separating from her husband. Per The Buffalo News, Aretha and her siblings spent several summers visiting their mother, grandmother, and half-brother in Buffalo in a house at 21 Lyth Avenue.

Life In Buffalo, New York

In her 1999 autobiography "From These Roots," Aretha Franklin recounted her memories of her summers at Lyth Avenue, including waiting on the porch for her mother to come home from work as a nurse's aide at Meyer Memorial Hospital, which later became the Erie County Medical Center (via The Buffalo News). When Barbara got home, she would draw Aretha and Caroline to her while she sat in a rocking chair and talked to her children about "better things to come." Tragically, Barbara Franklin died of a massive heart attack in 1952; she was just 34 years old.

According to The Buffalo News, Barbara Franklin's sister-in-law Ruby Siggers described "stunned grief" among the mourners who attended Barbara's funeral at Friendship Baptist Church followed by her burial at Forest Lawn cemetery. Forest Lawn has a page on its website discussing Aretha Franklin's connection to the cemetery, noting Aretha continued visiting her mother's grave throughout her life; during her last visit before her death in 2018, a cemetery staff member escorted her to the site via golf cart, as she was having trouble getting there on foot. Barbara's gravestone's epitaph reads, "In loving memory of our mom. You will always be in our hearts."

Barbara Franklin's Death Greatly Affected Her Daughter

The Buffalo News reports that Aretha Franklin discussed the pain of her mother's death in "From These Roots," writing, "I cannot describe the pain, nor will I try." She recounts coming back from the cemetery and sitting on the curb outside the house on Lyth Avenue "in tears ... for a long time" while she looked at the porch and remembered her time with her mother. She was just 10 years old. 

Vanity Fair quotes Franklin's booking agent Ruth Bowen, who told biographer David Ritz, "She was a traumatized child. It's one thing to have your mama move out of the house for reasons you don't understand. But it's another to have your mama die of a heart attack as a young woman ... And it happened just like that — no preparation, no warning. [Her father] told me after that he was afraid Aretha wouldn't ever recover — that she was unable to talk for weeks." 

How Audra McDonald captured Barbara Franklin's essence

Actor and singer Audra McDonald (above) played Barbara Siggers Franklin in the 2021 movie adaptation of "Respect." In an interview with BET, McDonald said of the role, "I would've said yes if they told me I would play the person to grab coffee. It's Aretha Franklin and there's never been a moment in my life where she didn't exist as my life always included her. I wanted to be a part of a film where she wasn't only attached to it, but it would really take care to tell her story with the nuance and respect she deserves." 

She described how she prepared to portray a woman about whom so little is known, explaining, "I learned as much as I could about Barbara ... and then I sort of delved into what I know of being a Black mother myself and tried to put myself in Barbara's shoes. To not have full custody of her children that she loved very much ... What would that be like? ... To then also when you are with them give them the comfort and not let them see you in pain and try and make them as good as possible. What would that be like?" 

McDonald was nominated for the NAACP Image Award for best supporting actress in a motion picture for her portrayal of Barbara Siggers Franklin (via IMDb).