‘A place that can inspire the world’: A deal is struck to save Camden’s MLK house

Patrick Duff, who has been fighting to save the house at 753 Walnut Street in Camden where Martin Luther King lived in 1950, inside the structure on June 10, 2021. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

Patrick Duff, who has been fighting to save the house at 753 Walnut Street in Camden where Martin Luther King lived in 1950, inside the structure on June 10, 2021. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

Updated: 12:10 p.m. Monday

Amir Khan and Jeanette Lily Hunt had never met before, but after an hour of conversation on Thursday she agreed to sell him the Camden house where Martin Luther King Jr. lived when he was denied service at a Maple Shade bar in 1950 — the first sit-in for the beloved civil rights icon.

Although Khan’s nonprofit, New Beginnings, paid Hunt $10,000 for it, the rowhouse at 753 Walnut St. is so dilapidated that the building will need an estimated $225,000 in restoration work to become the museum Khan envisions.

The following day, Khan and Hunt signed a contract for the sale. Afterward, Hunt — who knew King and had inherited the house from her father-in-law — told him, “The hope for me is to see you, Pastor Khan, make that house into a place that can inspire the world.”

At her Camden home, Jeanette Lily Hunt, who owns the rowhome where Martin Luther King once lived, talks with Amir Khan after agreeing to sell the King property to Khan’s nonprofit on June 10, 2021. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

It was June 11, 71 years to the day after King’s first formal protest against segregation at the Maple Shade bar.

The deal for the house was brokered by activist Patrick Duff, giving the small-business owner from Haddon Heights a happy ending to his seven-year effort to save the building.

After Thursday’s meeting, Duff went to Walnut Street to check on the condition of the house. He entered through a gaping hole in the building’s left side, and shook his head at the used syringes on the floor.

“There’s not a lot of time left to save this home,” he said, looking up at the buckling roof. “I don’t think it will go one more winter.”

Duff, 45, had been considering running for public office and was looking for “causes to get involved with” when he became fascinated by the story of a young Martin Luther King being confronted by a gun-toting bartender at the now-defunct Mary’s Café in Maple Shade. He soon became an amateur MLK historian, discovering so much about King’s interactions in Camden and Philadelphia that he is now writing a book.

At her Camden home, Jeanette Lily Hunt, who owns the rowhome where Martin Luther King once lived, prays with Amir Khan, center, and Patrick Duff after agreeing to sell the King property to Khan’s nonprofit on June 10, 2021. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

The more Duff learned, the more he became committed to saving the Walnut Street house. A watershed moment came on King’s birthday in 2015, when Duff located the police record from the Maple Shade incident, which had King’s Camden address on it.

Dr. King in the Philadelphia region

King was a student at Crozer Theological Seminary in suburban Philadelphia at the time, staying with friends in Camden in the summer of 1950. Hunt family members recalled that King had been warned by Hunt’s husband, the late Jesthroe Hunt, that Black people would not be welcome at Mary’s, but he replied that maybe they needed to go, so they could start to go anywhere they wanted. After the bartender refused to serve King, his friend Walter McCall, and their dates and fired a gun into the air, King asked Ulysses Wiggins — a prominent Camden resident and president of the New Jersey NAACP — for help. A police report was filed, the bartender was convicted on a gun charge and briefly jailed, and King would later describe the experience as a transformational one.

For Duff, the quest to preserve the rowhouse has been a roller-coaster ride rife with politics.

“It’s a political football,” Duff said. “Sadly, it’s been punted so many times that there’s now an extra hole in the side of the house!”

The high point came in 2016, when U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon himself and a friend of King’s, stood in front of the house with U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross and then-Mayor Dana Redd and proclaimed: “This place of historic real estate must be saved for generations unborn.”

U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, left; and U.S. Rep. John Lewis address the crowd at the September 2016 press conference to announce the preservation of the Martin Luther King, Jr. house at 753 Walnut Street in Camden. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

A disastrous collaboration with Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, a Camden nonprofit with strong links to the South Jersey Democratic Party, followed. Duff said Hunt had agreed to sell the building to Cooper’s Ferry for $1; in turn, said Duff, the nonprofit promised to seek historic designation from the city, stabilize the house’s roof, and apply for grants to preserve it. But Cooper’s Ferry never closed on the sale, leaving Hunt responsible for property taxes, repairs and liability.  When Duff discovered that Cooper’s Ferry received a $229,035 federal grant to renovate the house, he sued to find out what happened to the money and discovered it had been diverted to the city’s fire department.

Duff’s subsequent preservation efforts got nowhere. In February 2020, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, which has jurisdiction over natural and historic resources, rejected Duff’s bid for the state historic designation that would have allowed him to apply for the national registry and for preservation grants. DEP said the “weight and caliber of evidence does not support claims … with regard to the presence of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at 753 Walnut St.”

“It wasn’t happening because I’m not a Democratic machine team player,” Duff said. He believes he had become a political liability after the Cooper’s Ferry debacle and has maintained that he would disassociate himself from the house if it became necessary to save it. (Duff also decided he “would rather dig ditches” than ever become a politician.)

In May 2020, George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, spurring a national reckoning on race. In October, the state DEP contacted Duff to say it was interested in preserving the house after all. Elated, he resubmitted the application for historic status.

As months passed and the house’s condition became more precarious, Duff made periodic inquiries to the DEP. Officials replied they were still interested and planned to hire a person to handle civil rights history preservation in Camden. In the meantime, Duff fumed as other MLK-related objects and places were carefully preserved: a pool table King is said to have used while at Crozer; a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, where King spent several nights in 1967.

DEP spokesperson Caryn Shinske said in a statement that the department is “enthused and committed to memorializing the importance of the civil rights movement in Camden and the surrounding area.”

“The DEP’s Historic Preservation office is exploring grant opportunities and working to add a staff member to assist in conducting a survey of the rich history of the civil rights movement and its associated properties in Camden,” she said.

Jeanette Lily Hunt is escorted from the September 2016 press conference to announce the preservation of the Martin Luther King, Jr. house at 753 Walnut Street in Camden. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

By the time Khan expressed interest, Duff had turned his attention to King’s activities in Philadelphia, discovering that a 1950 speech by then-Howard University president Mordecai Johnson in that city that was inspirational to King had not taken place at the Fellowship House as thought but actually happened at the First Unitarian Church. Duff said he applied for and received confirmation of historic status for that building from Pennsylvania in only 28 days. He has been working on his King book, named “Significant,” because of his frustration at his painstaking research being treated as the opposite.

‘A culmination of what we’ve been fighting for’

Khan, a pastor and activist who made an unsuccessful run for Camden mayor in 2013, spent much of the last four years advocating for the city’s homeless, and more recently has worked to provide COVID-19 testing and vaccinations throughout the state, He said his promise to develop the house “isn’t about politics, it’s about purpose for me.”

Khan sees the museum as “a culmination of what we’ve been fighting for. We need to tell the story that Camden, New Jersey, is the birthplace of the civil rights movement.”

At a September 2016 press conference about saving the Martin Luther King, Jr. house at 753 Walnut Street in Camden, an attendee takes a picture of a poster promoting preservation efforts that fell through. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

Duff, who had not previously met Khan, said, “If the house gets rehabilitated, that’s my ultimate goal. If part of Amir’s goal is to make his legacy better, I’m proud of him. If he’s politically motivated? Well, a lot of things are.”

Khan’s first meeting with Jeanette Lily Hunt — who has a doctorate in pastoral counseling — was marked by the pair’s shared familiarity with Black churches in the area, and the discovery that Hunt had been a patient of Khan’s father, for decades a popular Camden doctor.

The second meeting, attended by three of Hunts’ four children and Duff — who was there for both — was more the stuff of dreams.

After Khan and Hunt signed the papers, the group marveled that they had been brought together to save the house on this anniversary. They posed for pictures, shared their favorite King quotes, and imagined what the Walnut Street rowhouse might look like as a museum.

Khan compared the effort to transform the house to a relay race — first with Hunt’s father-in-law, who refused to sell it; then Hunt and Duff and now Khan as runners on the same team, passing a baton.

In December 2018, Patrick Duff checks on the condition of the house at 753 Walnut Street where Martin Luther King once lived. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

“When we cut that ribbon and cross that finish line, we’re all going to rejoice together. “You’ll be right there on the front line,” Khan said, turning to Hunt.

“I hope I’ll be there,” said Hunt, who rarely leaves her home as she approaches her 91st birthday.

“You will be,” said Khan. “God didn’t bring you this far not to see it. You’re going to see it.”

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