In June 1950, a young seminary student signed his name—M.L. King Jr.—to a legal complaint, listing his address as 753 Walnut Street, Camden.
More than 66 years later, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Camden residence has been saved from demolition, thanks in large part to the efforts of local car salesman Patrick Duff, an amateur historian who documented the home’s historic significance. The two-story, attached house in one of Camden’s most blighted neighborhoods was to be razed; instead, the city has designated the house a historic site, and a movement is afoot to restore the structure and turn it into a civil rights museum and office space for the local NAACP.
King lived in the house from the end of 1948 to 1951, while attending Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. His Camden residency had been all but forgotten until Duff, investigating a related matter, happened upon the legal complaint signed by King following a June 12, 1950, incident in nearby Maple Shade.
Duff’s first clue was a newspaper article describing how King and his Camden roommate, fellow Crozer student Walter McCall, and two other individuals were unceremoniously tossed out of Mary’s Café, a Maple Shade bar on what is now Route 73. King and his companions went to the local police station and filed a civil complaint against the owner of the bar. It is believed to be the first time King took legal action in the name of civil rights. The president of the local NAACP chapter and an NAACP lawyer represented King and his companions in the case, which was dismissed after the white witnesses who had agreed to testify failed to show up in court.
Mary’s Café was torn down several years ago, but through Duff’s efforts, a historic plaque is being created for the site. As for the Walnut Street house, Duff’s research led him to Jeannette Hunt, a relative of McCall’s by marriage and the current owner of the now boarded-up building, once owned by her father-in-law, McCall’s cousin. She recalls King and McCall living in an upstairs room at the back of the house when she was a little girl.
Armed with the legal documents and news clippings, Duff sought to convince the city that the house should be preserved. His work got the attention of Camden mayor Dana Redd and local congressman Donald Norcross, both of whom wrote letters to the state Department of Environmental Protection requesting historic designation for the home. John Lewis, a congressman from Georgia and a close friend and associate of King’s, also expressed support. All three spoke at a press conference in September at the house calling for its preservation.
“This place of historic real estate must be saved for generations unborn,” said Lewis.
Since then, both houses of the state Legislature have unanimously passed resolutions urging the home be placed on the state historic registry; the city of Camden has given the house the historic designation needed to obtain the funds to restore it; and the Cooper’s Ferry Partnership has assumed title of the property to ensure its preservation.
Next up: Cooper’s Ferry will put a new roof on the house, and a Moorestown architectural firm, TAO Architecture + Design, working pro bono, will create a plan for the restoration. Funds are expected from numerous sources.