Details uncovered about MLK's former Camden home
Kevin C. Shelly, Courier-Post10:47 a.m. EST February 18, 2015
Angels tend Camden home said to be visited by MLK
Patrick Duff peeks into boarded up window of Walnut Street home in Camden where MLK once lived.
Like a self-taught detective, Patrick Duff tracked down numerous leads, sharpening a new narrative about formative years of one of the most studied men in American history.
Duff contacted eyewitnesses, met with sources, verified information, wove known facts together, connected gaps, and came up with a surprising — but plausible and still evolving — tale about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Duff, who grew up in Delran and now lives in Haddon Heights, is focused on King's years as a seminary student, from the fall of 1948 to May 1951, at the now-closed Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, just outside Chester, Pa.
During two of those years, King lived with Walter McCall, his best friend and fellow seminarian from Morehouse College in Atlanta, in a borrowed room in the Bergen Square section of Camden.
They lived in a back room of a twin home on Walnut Street, owned since 1945 by McCall's cousin, Benjamin Hunt.
Though it stands battered, empty and now apparently on Camden's abandoned properties list — a city spokesman did not respond to a request for comment — the Hunt family owns the home to this day.
Jeanette Lilly Hunt, 83, the current owner, recalls seeing King exchange greetings and pleasantries at the house when she visited during her early 20s, so the news about King living there came as no surprise.
But Hunt, who is working on a graduate-level course in pastoral counseling, calls the rest of Duff's digging "enlightening."
Now she and her family are looking to have the building recognized as a historical site and eventually restored and preserved as a study center focused on King and civil rights.
Duff's central thesis is that Camden, South Jersey and the region shaped King, turning him toward his life's work.
King's local experiences set him on a path of resisting and defying the barriers of racism and discrimination. They include: being told by seminary leaders to break off his courtship with Betty Moatz, a white woman who worked at the school; having a fellow student, a white man, pull a gun on him; getting rousted from a Maple Shade bar by an owner who discharged a gun when King, McCall and their dates refused to leave after not being served; and working with Camden's Dr. Ulysses S. Wiggins to bring legal challenges to businesses that refused service to African Americans.
"This set him on a crusade," said Duff, a social activist himself who worked in the medical marijuana business in California.
Duff hopes Maple Shade will honor King with a plaque or monument at the long-gone site of the bar where an owner pulled a .45 caliber handgun on King and McCall, who were on their way home from the shore with their dates.
The township manager, Jack Layne, is awaiting state approval of the memorial, but hopes to go ahead soon.
McCall later recalled the event at Mary's Place as "the first time that we had ever been in any kind of civil rights struggle."
The complaint, later dropped, that King made out in June 1950 against Ernest Nichols, the bar's owner, carries the Walnut Street address in Camden.
That address led Duff to Hunt through her son, retired Willingboro Police Det. Jay Hunt Jr.
"It was like the sky opened up," said Duff, making an angelic hum to accentuate the happiness he felt when he found the address.
Duff, escorted by Kelly Francis, a Camden activist Hunt has known for decades, showed up at Hunt's door on Pine Street, a few blocks from Walnut, about three weeks ago and simply asked if she knew King.
"I just had to say 'Yes,' because I did. But it was still a surprise."
Her children have embraced the news and the possibilities Duff's exploring has opened up.
"This is exciting," said Darlene Hunt Johnson, a music teacher in the Camden public schools.
"This is a memorable moment, exciting. Martin Luther King stayed at my grandfather's," said Shirley J. Hunt.
"This is wonderful," said Jacqueline Hunt, who is married to Jay Hunt.
"This is a part of history. We're blessed to be a part of that history," said the retired cop.
His mother hopes the home will be renovated and "used to boost the city."
Duff said he's happy to see the Hunts are so pleased.
Street-smart and a natural salesman, not a historian, Duff said his instincts as "a real person" have helped him to connect the incidents at the seminary to King's move to Camden — King had initially lived in Chester — and the Maple Shade incident that led King to a lifelong fight for equal treatment.
Duff's exploration began when he looked up an incident in Maple Shade where students were kept out of school due to unfounded fears about Ebola and their visit to Africa, but far from the epidemic.
Then, by happenstance, he discovered the King incident at Mary's Place.
But the more he read, the more the incident sounded like a fantasy — until he found the complaint King made out.
"I visualized what happened. When I found that police report, it was like it was signed, sealed and delivered," Duff said.
Sean Brown, a young Camden activist who had championed another nearby location as the likely home where King had lived, said he is happy to see any effort that ties king's legacy back to a place that helped to change him.
Reach Kevin Shelly at email@example.com or (856) 449-8684. Follow him on Twitter at @kcshlly.
ON THE WEB
For more information about the tavern confrontation, click here.
Click here to see the formal police complaint made by Martin Luther King Jr. showing a Camden address.
Children of Camden resident Lily Hunt (L to R) Darlene Hunt-Johnson, Shirley J. Hunt, Jacqueline Hunt (Jay's wife) and Jay Hunt Jr. stand in front of the house on Walnut St. in Camden where Martin Luther King Jr. lived when he was a seminary student in Chester, PA. Their mother Lily owns the property. Monday, February 16, 2015. (Photo: JOHN ZIOMEK/COURIER-POST)
Camden resident Lily Hunt owns the house on Walnut St. in Camden where Martin Luther King Jr. lived when he was a seminary student in Chester, PA. Monday, February 16, 2015. (Photo: JOHN ZIOMEK/COURIER-POST)