An effort to preserve a derelict Camden house where activists say Martin Luther King Jr. stayed during a pivotal time in his life has gotten a high-profile boost.
U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross wrote a letter dated Aug. 10 to New Jersey’s Historic Preservation Office, urging the state to “consider designating” the home at 753 Walnut St. “a historically valuable landmark worthy of preservation.”
The home, vacant for about a decade, is in dire need of repairs: Its roof is falling, its windows are all boarded up and it sits on a blighted block where addicts wander and other houses are held up by wooden braces.
But in a 1981 Courier-Post story, its late owner Benjamin Hunt — the father-in-law of Jeanette Lilly Hunt, its current owner — recalled King’s time there while studying at Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, Pennsylvania.
“In those days, anyone was welcome in this house,” Hunt, then 81, told the Courier-Post. "It had what we called a swinging door. My cousin Walter (McCall) was King’s friend and the two of them lived in the back room upstairs on and off for two years while they were in school.”
Patrick Duff, a Haddon Heights resident and amateur historian who’s among those leading the effort to preserve the home, said he was grateful for the congressman’s support.
“There was a lot of hard work, reaching out to representatives and people with the state and the city, and this is really what we needed, the support of someone like him,” Duff said.
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Norcross, a city resident and Democrat representing New Jersey's 1st District, in his letter cites Camden’s “unique and rich history … that grows stronger as new historical sites are found and invested in.”
Some, including Father Michael Doyle of Sacred Heart Parish in South Camden and Colandus “Kelly” Francis of the Camden County chapter of the NAACP, believe King’s interest in civil rights was sparked by an incident in nearby Maple Shade that occurred while he was living at the Camden home.
The incident, well documented in contemporary news reports, began when King, McCall and two female companions were refused service by the owner of Mary’s Place, a corner bar. When King and his friends refused to leave, the bar owner fired a gun into the air; McCall called police and while charges were filed, they were later dropped. King’s address was listed on the complaint as 753 Walnut St., Camden.
Bob Considine, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection (which oversees this Historic Preservation Office), said in an email that his office has “spent considerable time and effort trying to dig up whatever facts they could find, elevate the analysis and make the best case possible” for the home’s preservation.
The state, he said, is seeking more information, both from Duff and his fellow activists and on its own, and since the original application was made under a certain criterion with the National Park Service (which makes the final determination on sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places) the threshold for proving its place in U.S. history is higher: The application was made under Criterion B, which applies to properties that illustrate — as opposed to commemorate — an individual’s place in history.
“This is a criterion that does take considerable evidence to satisfy,” Considine said.
Duff said he will press on while acknowledging frustration at the slow progress: “Every time we think we’re close to the end, another step appears,” he said, but he’s hopeful the Norcross letter will spur others to lend their support.
He’s in the process of building a website that includes the documentation he’s found, such as newspaper clippings and witness accounts, and will eventually start fundraising the estimated $150,000-$200,000 needed to rehabilitate the house.
TAO Architecture and Design of Moorestown has donated its services to design architectural plans to convert the home into a museum.
The City of Camden has also expressed its interest in seeing the home preserved, donating the vacant lot next door, while Rutgers University-Camden Law School has offered to set up a nonprofit for the property’s management on a pro bono basis.