New Life for Forgotten MLK Site in Camden

More than 66 years later, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Camden residence has been saved from demolition.

The nondescript house in Camden where Martin Luther King Jr. lived while a seminary student has been spared the wrecking ball.
The nondescript house in Camden where Martin Luther King Jr. lived while a seminary student has been spared the wrecking ball.
Photo by William E. Kelly

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.

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  1. Jimmy Beshai

    Thank you Patrick for sharing this information about the Camden Residence, the refusal to serve MLK and Walter Macall at the St. Mary Café in Camden. You report that this happened June 1950. I came to Crozer
    the first week of September 2950. I did hear Martin and Walter talk about the incident in the cafeteria.

    You have been instrumental in saving this historic site and I support your effort to give a judicious history of
    of the origins of the Civil Rights Movement. I did not meet Jeanette Hunt and I am not familiar with the period
    when Martin and Walter lived in Camden. But I did hear them talk about it in the cafeteria.

    The Crozer dormintory was closed on weekends, no meals and no staff. Walter and Martin spent their weekends off the Crozer Campus. There were three foreign students who lived on campus even on weekends:
    I was one of them. The other two were En-chin Linn from China, and Makutu Sakurabayashi from Japan. I was the third, and I had come from the American University at Cairo, Egypt. I was on a two=year residence
    scholarship at Crozer and commuted to Penn by train to 30th Street Philadelphia. I had a joint scholarship to
    study Psychology at Penn, and Philosophy of Religion at Crozer.

    During weekends I assume that Walter and Martin spent time with friends in Chester like the Reverend Pius
    Barbour who was a friend and former Seminary classmate of Martin Luther King, Sr. On a couple of weekends Martin invited me to have dinner with him at the Barbours home where I was very well received.
    We discussed the political situation in Egypt which was trying to gain independence from British rule. Both
    Pius Barbour and Martin Luther King, Jr. supported me that Egypt should be independent from British rule
    with acknowledgement that the British had successfully implanted a parliament in Cairo and a semi-democratic rule in Egypt with King Farouk on the throne. During the second year at Crozer Martin had gone
    to Boston to pursue a Ph.D. which he earned with a dissertation on Paul Tillich. I returned to Egypt in 1952
    to teach at the American University in Cairo. In June 1959 Martin and Coretta King visited me in Cairo, and
    I took them to visit the American University and they met Dean Allan Horton whose father Douglas Horton was Professor of Religion at Harvard and taught King at Boston. In 1960 I came to the US to complete my
    Phd at the University of Kentucky, Lexington Kentucky. This was followed by a VA internship and an
    academic position as Asst. Professor of Psychology at Duquesne University. Following Duquesne I worked
    for the VA as staff psychologist until 2015 when I retired.

    My writing on Martin Luther King, Jr. has moved from a personal account to a more empirical or scientific
    approach of reading his books and doing content analysis and interpreting the results of this analytics.

    During my graduate training at Penn and Kentucky I was introduced to the work of French philosopher Paul
    Ricoeur who maintains that the truth of a public figure like MLK, Jr. cannot be done by Analytics without
    hermeneutics. This means that one cannot make the facts of history meaningful to the public without successive interpretation of the events that shaped the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

    I explain this transition in two papers that I published at the American Psychological Association. I
    will be happy to send them as attachments, but do not have the computer skills to do that. I could also
    hand you printed copes of these articles and send them to your home address if you send me your home address.