Jeanette Lilly Hunt was 18 when her father-in-law rented a room in his Camden, New Jersey, home to two students who were studying across the Delaware River at the Crozer Theological Seminary.
Hunt, who is now 85, said she did not pay much attention to either student until her father-in-law, Benjamin Hunt, and Ulysses Wiggins, president of the Camden County branch of the NAACP, helped the students file a police complaint. The complaint was against Ernest Nichols, a white tavern owner in Maple Shade, New Jersey, and said that he had refused to serve the black students and their dates in June 1950, and had threatened them by firing a gun in the air.
The complaint was signed by the two students. One of the signatures, in a loopy, slanted cursive, reads “M.L. King Jr.”
M.L. King Jr., who was then 21, listed his address as 753 Walnut St., Hunt’s home. The home, which has been empty for decades, is still owned by Hunt, who said the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was like a member of the family when he lived there from 1949-51.
In recent years, Hunt has been helping activists who are trying to have the property placed on the National Register of Historic Places. While the house has been designated as a historic site by the city of Camden, the state of New Jersey must review the application before it can move to the federal level.
Hunt, whose husband, Jesthroe, died in 2005, has been paying between $500 and $1,000 a year in property taxes to hang on to the dilapidated two-story home, which she said she has always dreamed would be restored in honor of King, who was killed in 1968.
Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, a nonprofit that develops properties around the city, added the Walnut Street home to its roster of restoration projects in the fall. Anthony J. Perno III, chief executive of Cooper’s Ferry, said the organization was forming a committee to raise money to restore the home and was discussing how best to proceed.
“The question is, What role could the property play in a larger community discussion?” Perno said. “It should be more than a museum, but what exactly, we don’t know yet.”
Clayborne Carson, a professor and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, said King’s first personal encounter with segregation, in a way that he saw his life endangered, could have occurred during his time in Camden.
“Another element of this was that he had a pad,” Carson said of the Camden home. “A place outside the campus dormitory where if you wanted to take a trip into Philadelphia, you had a place to stay.”
Carson learned about King’s connection to the Walnut Street property from Patrick Duff, a New Jersey car salesman and amateur historian. His research caused Carson to rethink King’s years at the seminary, the first time he was out of the watchful eye of his father, a traditional Baptist pastor.
“King led this life under the protective shadow of his father, but here we see that at Crozer, he probably becomes more aware of the harsher aspects of American racism,” Carson said. “That incident in Maple Shade, I think, is part of that awakening. You see that Crozer wasn’t this northern oasis protected from the reality of racism.”
Duff found the complaint in the Stanford archives while researching the episode at the Maple Shade tavern. “On January 15 of 2015 — I’m not even kidding — it was Dr. King’s actual birthday, when I was searching an archive and I came across the actual police complaint,” Duff said.
But the case was dropped when three white witnesses would not testify. Nichols’ lawyer issued a statement at the time saying that his client did not intend to threaten the students when he fired the gun.
The tavern would have been the ideal place for a memorial, Carson said, but it was demolished in 2011, making the Camden property the next best choice.
“Anything that survives from the past that allows us to illuminate some significant aspect of the past is valuable to have,” Carson said. “To me, not preserving something like this is like going into a museum and burning one of the documents.”
But the process for the Camden house to receive state or federal recognition is slow, and Kate Marcopul, administrator of the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office, said her agency is still researching whether the home meets the criteria for the state and national registries.
Paul Loether, chief of the National Register of Historic Places for the National Park Service, which operates the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, said his staff does not judge any property until it has gone through a state review.
“Obviously, it seems to be a potential candidate for its association with Dr. King, but it really has to be evaluated according to the guidelines and criteria,” Loether said.
The property’s potential has attracted the attention of state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., a Republican, and U.S. Reps. Donald Norcross, D-N.J., and John Lewis, D-Ga. Lewis marched alongside King in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, the day King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Lewis said Martin Luther King Jr. Day was especially poignant this year because the United States’ first black president, Barack Obama, would leave office on the same week as the national holiday.
“More than any other time in our recent history, there’s so much talk, so much discussion, so much attention to the issue of race,” Lewis said in an interview. “This is a fitting and appropriate time that we look back and see the distance we’ve come, the progress we’ve made, to recognize some of these pieces of history and save and preserve them for generations yet unborn.”