The owner of the Camden home where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is said to have lived as a young seminary student in 1950 wants to put the property up for sale and hopes a buyer will move forward with plans to make it a historical site.
With efforts to have the vacant house placed on the state historic registry bogged down in controversy amid questions about its ties to the civil rights icon, Jeanette Lily Hunt wants to put the property on the market, said Patrick Duff, an activist who has been spearheading the fight to save the house.
"At this point, we're in discussions to do it," Duff said in an interview outside the house Monday afternoon. " She just wants to see it do something good."
Duff said he hopes to secure an agreement with an auctioneer to sell the property. A similar deal was made to sell the Detroit house where another civil rights icon, Rosa Parks, once sought refuge. It was included in a larger sale of African American cultural and historic items in an auction by Guernsey's in New York. The house didn't fetch the $1 million minimum presale price, but a buyer reportedly came forward after the auction.
Like the King house, the house where Parks lived for two years after she made history in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., landed on a demolition list. A niece purchased the abandoned home for $500 and donated it to an artist in hopes of preserving her aunt's legacy. (It was dismantled, shipped to Germany, refurbished, and returned to the United States. It is currently in in storage in Providence, N.Y., according to ArtNet News.)
Hunt, 87, hopes to use the proceeds from the Camden property to pay for a new roof for a church she visits in South Carolina, where she attends graduate school, Duff said. She wants the three-story house preserved because of its connection to the civil rights movement, he said.
The home at 753 Walnut St. in the city's Bergen Square neighborhood has fallen into disrepair. Activists want it placed on the state historic registry and converted along with an adjacent vacant lot into a site commemorating King's time in Camden
Activists say King stayed in the house while studying at the now-closed Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester. 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.
In 2016, Camden's Historical Commission declared the house a historical site. Rep. John Lewis (D., Ga.), a King lieutenant, came to the city to lend support, calling the house "a piece of historic real estate that must be saved."
In a Stockton University study released in February, however, researchers disputed the significance of the house. The 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.
The report put a cloud over the plans to have the house declared a historic site. An application seeking a designation for the house has been pending for several years with the state Historic Preservation Office. The project suffered another setback this year when a $229,000 restoration grant was diverted to the city fire department without explanation.
Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said no decision has been made on the application. The state recently contacted the King Center in Atlanta again seeking input on the report, he said.
"We want to make sure they are part of the process and have anything to add to the record that was developed regarding the property," Hajna said Tuesday.
Like many of the nearby properties in the neighborhood, the house is an eyesore. Youngsters riding bicycles down the middle of the street were unaware of the tie to King.
King was living at the Camden house when he was refused service at a Maple Shade bar, along with a fellow seminary student, in an incident that helped spark his lifelong crusade for civil rights, according to Duff. In his research, Duff noticed King's Camden address on the 1950 police report on the incident.
Hunt said King visited the home, which was owned by her father-in-law. Her sister-in-law, Thelma Lowery, also said she recalled seeing King at the home.
"How is that not significant?" Duff asked. "It doesn't make any sense."