Jeanette Lilly Hunt, the owner of a long-vacant home in a blighted Camden neighborhood where Martin Luther King Jr. once stayed, has reached an agreement in principle with a city nonprofit to take custody and preserve the home.
Cooper's Ferry Partnership will take over as custodian of the home at 753 Walnut St., where the civil rights icon stayed as a guest of Hunt's father-in-law, the late Benjamin Hunt, while he was a student at Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, Pennsylvania.
The move will enable Cooper's Ferry to raise funds and begin work to preserve the home, which is in dire need of repairs to its roof and in need of plumbing, electrical and other fixtures.
"I am very excited," the 85-year-old Camden resident told the Courier-Post Thursday evening. "This is like a dream come true."
Asked about the process undertaken by Haddon Heights amateur historian Patrick Duff to prove the home's historical significance — a process that is still winding its way through state and city bureaucracy — she invoked Scripture: "Everything has a season, and a beginning, and this is the beginning."
Cooper's Ferry, she said, had been "very cooperative, their attitudes were just right, and there was a good spirit in the room." The nonprofit will work to preserve the home, and once it's stabilized and its historic status cemented, will work with Hunt to find another nonprofit organization to maintain and operate what she and others hope will eventually become a museum and educational site.
Representatives from Cooper's Ferry could not be reached Thursday night; however, U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, who has been involved in the effort to preserve the home, released a statement to the Courier-Post.
“Today, I’m proud that I was able to bring our community together to help restore and save this important piece of American history," the Camden Democrat said. "We owe it to future generations to ensure this national treasure is safeguarded for many years to come."
Anthony Perno, CEO of Cooper's Ferry, said in the statement that his organization was "proud to be partners in making this a reality."
“I am delighted that the momentum to preserve this historic house is gaining the attention it rightfully deserves. The city is committed to work with the owner of the house, Ms. Hunt, as well as Congressman Norcross, Cooper’s Ferry Partnership and others to do what is necessary to save this wonderful piece of history,” Camden Mayor Dana Redd said.
Duff, whom Hunt described as "a joy" and "a blessing," has worked for the last two years to document the home's unique place in King's life: He and others, including Colandus "Kelly" Francis of the Camden County NAACP, believe an event in nearby Maple Shade, spurred the young seminarian's interest in racial equality.
The incident, well documented in contemporary news reports, began when King, his friend Walter 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.
Last month, Norcross brought another Civil Rights icon, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, to Camden to offer his support for the home's preservation.
"This piece of historic real estate must be saved for generations unborn," said Lewis, a friend of King's, in September. "Martin Luther King Jr. didn't just help change America; he helped change the world."
Hunt said Thursday night that, even though the home had been in her family for decades, she's happy to see someone else take over.
"The house is there, it will stay there, and it will be such a benefit to the neighborhood and the people, not just in Camden, but people all over the world who want to learn about Dr. King.
"I've seen Camden like it used to be, and I watched it go down. Now, I'm seeing it go up again. Things are happening. Positive things."