On the eve of Black History Month, N.J. denied historic designation for Camden MLK House

Martin Luther King Jr. stayed in the back bedroom of this house (left) on Walnut Street in Camden, according to the owner who inherited the property from her father-in-law. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Martin Luther King Jr. stayed in the back bedroom of this house (left) on Walnut Street in Camden, according to the owner who inherited the property from her father-in-law. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

New Jersey’s Historic Preservation Office denied, on the day before the start of Black History Month, a spot on the state’s Register of Historic Places to the Camden house where Martin Luther King Jr. planned one of his first formal civil rights protests.

Friday’s decision denying the special designation for 753 Walnut St. comes nearly five years after the first application for historic status was filed by small-business owner Patrick Duff of Haddon Heights.

In a nine-page letter obtained by WHYY, dated Friday and signed by Assistant Commissioner Ray Bukowski, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, which runs the Historic Preservation Office, informs Duff that 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 Street.”

Attempts to contact several members of the Historic Preservation Office on Saturday for comment about the decision did not immediately yield a response.

According to many accounts, in June 1950, when the 21-year-old King was a student at Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, Pennsylvania, he and friends stopped in for a drink at the since-demolished Mary’s Place in Maple Shade. King and his companions were denied service by a white bartender. Their lives were threatened as the bartender told them he had “killed for less” and fired a gunshot into the air.

After the incident, King went back to the Walnut Street house in Camden, where he stayed from time to time with Walter R. McCall, his longtime friend from both Morehouse College and the Crozer seminary. There, they created a plan for what would become the civil rights leader’s first sit-in.

Duff submitted the application for what is known as the Benjamin Hunt House in March 2015, after moving back to New Jersey from California and researching history in the area. He stumbled upon a 1988 Philadelphia Inquirer article titled, “A bar that began a crusade,” that detailed the story of King’s experience in Maple Shade.

After obtaining the police complaint about the incident, which listed King’s address as 753 Walnut St., Camden, Duff went to the property and found notices for its demolition. With the help of the New Jersey NAACP, he conferred with Jeanette Hunt, the current owner of the house.

“Well, he used to stay at my house,” Hunt told Duff.

Jeanette Hunt, who owns the home in Camden where Martin Luther King once stayed. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Duff has described the house, which is unoccupied, as degrading quickly, with water leaking from the roof and holes forming in the floors.

“The house is going to fall down,” he said last month. “If it doesn’t get saved in the next year or two, it’s done.”

In an interview Saturday, Duff described the Historic Preservation Office’s decision as “intellectual dishonesty.”

According to the letter, much of the decision relies on the argument that because the application — and a subsequent $21,000 study conducted by Stockton University in 2017 — failed to determine how many visits King made, when they occurred and how long they lasted, it is difficult to prove how important the house was to King. By most historians’ accounts, King spent much of his time living on campus during his three years at the Crozer seminary in Delaware County.

The Stockton study was followed by news that City of Camden had diverted to its fire department a $229,000 grant earmarked to save the house.

After Duff’s rediscovery of the Hunt house, the state’s NAACP, Camden Mayor Dana Redd, and U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross all wrote letters urging the DEP to protect “a physical reminder of the profound role that Camden played in the shaping of our nation’s greatest civil rights leader.” The New Jersey Legislature unanimously adopted a resolution in the same vein.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights icon in his own right, visited the house in 2016 to endorse its historical significance.

“This place of historic real estate must be saved for generations unborn,” Lewis said.

In its letter, the Historic Preservation Office says, “Please do not misunderstand this finding, it does not mean that Dr. King was never present at 753 Walnut Street. His visits to 753 Walnut Street were just that: visits.”

The letter notes that for a property to be listed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places, it has to meet the national register’s criteria for evaluation, in which a house or building possesses significance in “architecture, history or culture on the national, statewide or local level.”

One of the main criteria used in the Historic Preservation Office’s argument is that Duff’s application focused on the racist incident that occurred at Mary’s Place.

“It did not take place at 753 Walnut Street in Camden,” the letter reads. “As a result, 753 Walnut Street cannot be listed in the Registers on this basis.”

But Duff said the National Park Service’s criteria for the National Register of Historic Places says that a property only needs to be “associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history. … that are associated with the lives of persons significant in our past. … or have yielded, or may be likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history.”

The letter also goes on to say that the national register normally only recognizes one property associated with a notable person’s history. Yet some notable figures, like George Washington, are represented by several properties on the register, Duff said.

Eight properties with connections to King are listed, most of them in Alabama but also including the seminary he attended in Upland.

Effectively, the Historic Preservation Office says in its letter that of at least 20 places with a “fleeting association with Dr. King” in the Garden State, the Walnut Street house may just be a minor part of his link to New Jersey, in comparison to other properties.

“The strength of Dr. King’s association with 753 Walnut Street pales in comparison with the three academic years that he lived at the Crozer Theological Seminary, where he was in direct and daily contact with professors and fellow seminarians who clearly influenced him and whom he influenced,” the letter reads.

The letter goes on to say that the Mary’s Place event was just one in a series of experiences of racism that occurred in King’s life — that it wasn’t the first or the last involving a firearm, or the only one involving refusal of service.

In December 2017, the Historic Preservation Office letter says, it sent a copy of the Stockton study of the property to the King Center for Nonviolent Social Justice in Atlanta for its review and comment, but has yet to receive any reply.

Linn Washington, a journalism professor at Temple University who started covering the story of the Walnut Street house in the 1980s, said he was startled by the decision but not surprised.

“Given the fact that the New Jersey HPO had taken over 1,700 days — five times longer than the Montgomery bus boycott —  to deliberate on this, I didn’t think they would approve it because I thought there was some, quite frankly, institutional bias here,” Washington said.

Duff called the Historic Preservation Office’s denial of the special designation application “an insult to American history.” He said he is unable to talk to Jeanette Hunt — the property’s owner, whom he also considers a friend — about the decision because it makes her upset.

“It’s an insult to Dr. King’s legacy, but that’s part of how systemic racism works,” Duff said. “They allow for African American relics to be depleted in African American neighborhoods and history to be pushed into the smallest month of the year — February.”

Duff said it’s also shocking that the letter was sent the day before Black History Month started, but he believes that may be connected to a lawsuit he filed to gain access to internal DEP emails related to the property. Initially, Duff received heavily redacted copies of the emails or was denied access after a series of public-records requests.

The Historic Preservation Office decision came one day after the judge in the emails case signed an order requiring the state’s DEP commissioner to appear in court in April.

Duff said he plans to appeal the decision to the National Park Service. His vision for the house includes donating it to Philadelphia nonprofit Mighty Writers. He said it could cost between $200,000 and $500,000 to repair the dilapidated structure.

It’s hard not to think of the cultural implications of the Historic Preservation Office’s decision, Linn Washington said.

“We have a person in Dr. King who indisputably is one of the major influences of the late 20th century,” Washington said. “And then we have an organization saying this individual whose activism changed the face of America — and that activism is rooted in New Jersey. And this entity is saying that doesn’t really have any historical relevance.”

“You don’t like to get into these racial dynamics, but what are the subliminal biases that may be at play here?” he asked.

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WHYY’s Nicholas Pugliese contributed reporting to this article. 

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