Martin Luther King Jr.’s signature graces a Bible in South Philadelphia pawnshop

Peter Del Borrello III’s shop at Broad and Washington has become home to an unexpected artifact: a Bible inscribed by Martin Luther King Jr.
(Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Peter Del Borrello III’s shop at Broad and Washington has become home to an unexpected artifact: a Bible inscribed by Martin Luther King Jr. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

When South Philadelphia pawnshop owner Peter Del Borrello III was 12 years old, he was struck by an unlikely dream: to own a Bible signed by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His father had a longstanding friendship with Steven Raab, one of the leading collectors and authenticators of  American historical documents. And Del Borrello’s earliest memory of King dates back to a single Raab Collection catalog that included a Bible signed by the beloved civil rights leader.

Today, ensconced between the busy traffic of a pawn shop and a bustling check-cashing business is an unexpected display: a Bible bearing King’s signature. Del Borello is co-owner of 1st United Pawn & Loan, at Broad Street and Washington Avenue in the heart of South Philadelphia. In January 2019, he purchased the Bible on eBay for $2,500.

1st United Pawn and Loan on Broad Street near Washington Avenue in South Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The journey of this particular Bible is not fully clear. It was sold at an estate sale in Las Vegas, and the original owner remains unknown. Such is the nature of auctions, Del Borello said, because it’s often difficult to track the complete history of items from personal collections. To make up for this missing piece of the Bible’s history, he went out of his way to have the signature verified by Professional Sports Authenticator, one of the world’s largest third-party authentication services.

But Del Borello has no intention of selling the Bible. Instead, he plans on sharing the magic of King’s signature with whoever wants to take part. The pawnshop, which is open seven days a week, welcomes those who’d like to take a look and reflect on King’s legacy.

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“We are your typical pawnshop, with jewelry and electronics, but we also like to look at those rare items,” Del Borello said. “Our shops are different in that we try to bring history in for customers.”

Peter M. Del Borrello III, the owner of 1st United Pawn and Loan, in his display room at his pawnshop on Broad Street in South Philly. The cases contain a piece of the Titanic, some very old bank notes, and a Bible signed by Martin Luther King Jr. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The Bible sits propped up and open in a glass display case within the shop, surrounded by a motley of rare items — old bank notes and a small piece of metal that Del Borello says is from the Titanic. King’s signature spreads elegantly across the page in grand strokes that read, “Best Wishes, Martin Luther King Jr.”

Del Borello was moved by the signature’s placement within a religious text, and he believes it reflects King’s high ideals and vision for humanity.

Of the Bible, he said, “It’s something that I always wanted to have in my collection. Dr. Martin Luther King is such an inspiration, and I thought that really displaying it is what I needed to do.”

Peter M. Del Borrello III, the owner of 1st United Pawn and Loan, uncovers the bible signed by Martin Luther King Jr. in his office in South Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

King’s legacy reached Philadelphia long before this Bible did. According to Clayborne Carson of Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, King had a Bible with him every moment of every day. And his father’s extensive connections in the network of Black ministers led him to Philadelphia, where he was mentored by Rev. J. Pius Barbour of Calvary Baptist Church in Chester.

One of King’s most momentous visits here took place in August 1965, when he addressed a massive civil rights demonstration at Girard College in North Philadelphia. He was speaking on the issue of desegregation, as the school refused to admit students who were non-white.

It was common practice for leaders of the civil rights movement to give religious sermons that advocated the values and goals of the movement itself, and to engage and unify demonstrators through religious songs, particularly African American spirituals. The crowd of Philadelphians who came to see King speak outside Girard College were invited to sing “We Shall Overcome,” popular as a protest song of the era.

As Del Borello noted, “Philadelphia has a really rich history.”

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