CAMDEN, NJ — This week activist Patrick Duff, a Haddon Heights resident, plans to appeal the state's decision not to officially recognize the historical significance of a Camden home with links to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
New Jersey Historic Preservation Office (HPO) sent Duff a letter last Friday — on the precipice of Black History Month —informing him that it finds the house did, “not meet National Register criteria for an association with Dr. King during the three years in which he was a graduate student in... Upland, Pennsylvania.”
“Please do not misunderstand this finding,” an excerpt from the letter continues, “It does not mean that Dr. King was never present at 753 Walnut Street. It does mean that Dr. King neither lived nor resided there. His visits...were just that: visits.”
Members of the preservation office did not immediately respond to calls for comment.
Duff told TAPinto Camden that what the HPO characterizes in its response to him was never the case that he was making.
“I did not argue the duration of his stay and what that meant. My argument had to do with the connection of that house to the incident at Maple Shade,” he said.
In June 1950, King studied at Crozer Theological Seminary in the Keystone State. A 21-year-old King and friends reportedly stopped to the now-demolished Mary’s Place in Maple Shade for a drink — where the group was denied service.
Threats were made during the incident — which was recounted in a 1988 Philadelphia Inquirer article entitled, “A bar that began a crusade" — including the firing of a .45 caliber handgun outside the establishment.
Duff said he found the article and in further researching the matter discovered that the civil rights leader returned to the house on Walnut Street — where he stayed with a friend, Walter R. McCall, and began to lay down plans for what-would-be King’s first sit-in.
“That was the crux of my entire application,” said Duff.
Duff, who gathered testimony from various witnesses, also got his hands on the police complaint surrounding the Mary’s Place encounter. The report lists 753 Walnut St. in Camden as King’s address.
As it stands, the house is in a dilapidated condition.
On an uncharacteristically warm Tuesday morning, the sun beat down on the vacant structure. Off-brown boarded up windows stand opposite a vacant lot.
The only marker someone once resided there: white paint on a black backdrop denoting “753” in crude lettering.
Duff said in addition to having the historic marker, he hopes the designation would mean preserving the home and “use it to the benefit of the community.”
A question of criteria
According to the HPO, in order to be eligible for historic designation, a property must be shown to possess “significance in American architecture, history or culture on the national, state or local level.”
Two of the four criteria to make said designation were immediately disqualified in the case of the Camden address since they deal respectively with architectural significance and archeological sites.
However, Criteria A deals with properties, “associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history.” Criteria B applies to properties that, “are associated with the lives of persons significant in our past.”
The office affirms that since the “racial incident,” which Duff alludes to in his application, took place at Mary’s Place in Maple Shade and not the Camden house, the first criteria does not apply.
As for Criteria B, the National Register Bulletin is largely associated with the final call as to what properties, “illustrate — rather than commemorate — a person’s important achievements.”
As of 2020, the state agency said at least 20 places in the Garden State are linked to Dr. King. However, their associations are referred to as “weak” or “fleeting” by the HPO.
Of the properties on the National Register of Historic Places list with strong associations, four are in Alabama, two in Georgia, one in Washington, D.C., and one in Pennsylvania.
The HPO said evidence provided in Duff's application and its findings — which were in part informed by a $21,000 study in 2017 by Stockton University — need, “to be reconciled with the writings and positions of historians who cite interviews with Crozer classmates as evidence that during the academic year, Dr. King lived at Crozer, not in Camden.”
The letter to Duff, signed by Assistant Commissioner Ray Bukowski, said that unless additional convincing historical evidence is produced, the property cannot proceed through the nominating process.
Duff, who said he’s been in contact with NJ Sen. Troy Singleton about the matter, will now seek a legal route as well as explore a federal designation for the site.
He also said he plans to write a book about his journey to earn the historical designation.
“I just need an ending,” he continued, “I hope it’s a good one.”