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Researchers dispute historical significance of Camden house tied to Martin Luther King

A newly released study by Stockton University researchers is raising questions about a claim that King stayed in a house that local activists are seeking to have declared a state historical landmark.

Local social activist Patrick Duff, U. S. Rep. Donald Norcross, Jeanette Lily Hunt, civil rights icon and U. S. Rep. John Lewis and former Camden Mayor Dana Redd stand in front of the Walnut Street house that Ms. Hunt owns in Camden where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lived while a student at Crozer Theology Seminary in the 1950s.
Local social activist Patrick Duff, U. S. Rep. Donald Norcross, Jeanette Lily Hunt, civil rights icon and U. S. Rep. John Lewis and former Camden Mayor Dana Redd stand in front of the Walnut Street house that Ms. Hunt owns in Camden where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lived while a student at Crozer Theology Seminary in the 1950s.Read moreAvi Steinhardt

A newly released study by Stockton University researchers is raising questions about a claim that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spent time in a Camden rowhouse that local activists believe should be declared a state historical landmark because of ties to the civil rights movement.

The report, commissioned by the state Department of Environmental Protection, could derail efforts to save the dilapidated home in the city's Bergen Square neighborhood, where activists say King stayed in 1950 while studying at the now-closed Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester.

The three-story house at 753 Walnut St. has fallen into disrepair and has been vacant for years. Activists want the house placed on the state historic registry to ensure that it is not demolished.

In a 179-page report, a team of Stockton researchers concluded in part that "King may reasonably be said to have 'stayed' or 'visited' 753 Walnut Street at certain points in time, but at no time could be said to have 'lived' there."  The findings rest largely on evidence and fragments and old memories, sometimes contradictory, they said.

Social activists who want the house preserved believe it has historical significance and dismissed the findings. They plan to appeal if the state denies an application that has been pending for several years with the state Office of Historical Preservation seeking a designation for the house.

"We've always had white folks decide our history. We don't need validation from the state or the federal government," former Camden County East NAACP President Kelly Francis said in an interview Monday. "I don't think you will find anybody in Camden who doesn't think it's important."

Camden's Historical Commission declared the house a historical site in 2016. Francis and local historians believe King frequently studied for classes and mulled issues that helped mold him as a civil rights leader during his stays in Camden. The state Legislature passed resolutions that same year, calling for preservation of the house.

"The home remains an important part of Camden's rich history," city spokesman Vincent Basara said in a statement. The city plans to install historical markers to commemorate the neighborhood and its contributions to the civil rights movement, he said.

King was living at the house when he was refused service at a Maple Shade bar, along with fellow seminary student Walter R. McCall, in  an incident that helped spark his lifelong crusade for civil rights, according to Patrick Duff, who has compiled dozens of documents on the time period and has spearheaded the fight to save the house.

The pub owner declined to serve them, saying he was prohibited from selling "package goods," alcoholic beverages, after 10 p.m. When pressed for four glasses of ginger ale, he declined, pulled a pistol, walked outside, and fired it a few times.

King reported the matter to police and the owner was arrested, but charges were dismissed when several witnesses failed to testify before a grand jury.

In his research, Duff noticed King's Camden address on the 1950 police report. Duff began compiling volumes of information and interviewing local residents to submit an application to place the house on the New Jersey Register of Historic  Places, a designation that would make the house eligible for preservation grants.

Duff, too, disputed the conclusions by the Stockton researchers and noted that the findings were made by an all-white team. He contends that one of the researchers, Paul W. Schopp, who serves on Camden's preservation commission, had a preconceived bias against the proposal to save the Walnut Street house.

"Why take the white historians' word? To me it's Racism 101," said Duff, who is also white.

Schopp didn't respond to an email Monday. A spokeswoman for the university spokeswoman declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for the state DEP.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights veteran and a King lieutenant, visited Camden in 2016 to lend his support to having the home declared a historic site. He called the house a "piece of historic real estate that must be saved for generations yet unborn."

Like many of the nearby properties in the neighborhood, the Walnut Street house is vacant and boarded up. Several years ago, a  notice was issued to demolish it, although city officials said the citation was to force its owner to bring it into compliance with codes.

The current owner, Jeanette Lily Hunt, said King visited the home, which was owned by her father-in-law, Benjamin  Hunt. In interviews with Duff and the Stockton researchers, she recalled some aspects of "King's purported visits," the study said. Her sister-in-law, Thelma Lowery, also recalled seeing King at the home but never spoke with him directly.

In an unprecedented move, the state selected Stockton to evaluate evidence submitted on the historical registry application to determine how much time King spent in Camden and the impact of any time in the city had on his development in later life. The state spent about $20,000 for the study, according to Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection.

It will now be up to the Historical Preservation Office to determine whether the house meets guidelines for historic listing. A timeline was not announced.

The Stockton researchers, five professors and two graduate students, pored through newspaper articles, interviews, oral histories emails and documents that were compiled by Duff  and his team. They also tried to contact the King family, seeking any letters that King may have sent from the Camden address or any documents to show that he lived in Camden.

"The paucity of concrete information about King's potential Camden movements means that it ultimately comes down to speculation about whether he stayed a night, a week, a month, or on some regular or inconsistent basis at 753 Walnut Street," the report said. "…The lack of evidence about King's time at 753 Walnut Street makes it difficult to determine whether the city was a sanctuary or study, a base for weekend recreation or a convenient place to stay. …"

Duff still hopes to turn the house and the adjacent vacant lot into a site commemorating King's time in Camden.

"The connection to that house you can't doubt it," he said. "This is American history. It's not just African American history."