MLK Historians Urge NJ To Save Camden Home linked to MLK.

This Story is Dedicated to the memory of the late and great freedom fighter, Colandus “Kelly” Francis.

Patrick Duff has been fighting to preserve a home in Camden NJ for over seven years.  Duff first began the battle in January of 2015, when the recently passed away civil rights powerhouse from Camden, Colandus “Kelly” Francis, brought him to meet the owner of 753 Walnut Street in Camden, Pastor Jeannette Lily Hunt.  Hunt, who was 83 at the time, welcomed the pair into her home and let them know that she was working on her computer preparing a paper to receive her doctorate in pastoral counseling, but she’d give them a minute.

When Hunt asked just what it was that the pair wanted, Duff chimed in with a simple question that would change his life forever, “Did you know Martin Luther King?”.  To which, Hunt replied “Well he used to live in my house”, that house being 753 Walnut Street in Camden. 

King periodically stayed at 753 Walnut Street between 1948-1951 with his best friend and classmate, Walter McCall, while they both attended Crozer Seminary School. McCall was the nephew of Hunt’s Father in-law, Benjamin Hunt, who let King and McCall stay for free. King started at Crozer in September of 1948, but McCall had to save up money for tuition so he worked as a substitute teacher in the Camden School system for three months as a teacher.

Camden was one of the most progressive cities in the nation as it pertained to the early civil rights movement, a movement that was led by Dr. Ulysses S. Wiggins and Robert Burk Johnson. Wiggins was a medical doctor and the President of the Camden and NJ NAACP, who also sat on the national board of the NAACP with Thurgood Marshal. Wiggins was a powerhouse, growing the Camden NAACP chapter from just a few people when it was reorganized in 1941, to over 3000 by 1948. Robert Burk Johnson was the lawyer for the Camden NAACP, and the second black person ever elected to the Camden School Board, who in 1972 was also the first African American Judge to be nominated to the Superior Court on NJ. With the dynamic duo of Wiggins and Johnson at the helm of the Camden NAACP, along with the help from the more than 3,000 local members, the city of Camden began to desegregate the Camden School system in 1947.

Just two years prior in 1945, Dr. James O. Hill, who was only the second African American ever elected to the NJ assembly, sponsored a set of bills that passed which outlawed discrimination on property owned by the government. Those bills, which were lobbied for by Wiggins and many others, were what gave the ability for Wiggins and Johnson to begin to desegregate Camden’s school system, a system that King’s best friend, Walter McCall, found himself immersed in as a teacher in the fall of 1948.

When the landmark NJ legislation passed in 1945, which was only second to New York, it made it illegal to discriminate against people on property owned by the government, yet it did not make it illegal for private property owners, such as restaurants, movie theaters and bowling alleys, to discriminate against people of a different race or religion. NJ attempted to remedy that issue though, when in 1947, the voters passed a revised version of the NJ State Constitution that included a provision outlawing discrimination in all places of public accommodation, yet it had no enforcement measure, so it was like a dog with no teeth. Those much needed teeth would later come in 1949 when the Freeman Bill was passed, which was sponsored by Republican Assembly Woman, Grace Freeman, of Essex County.

Taking this all in must have been incredibly influential to a young King and McCall, who were used to living in the Jim Crow south, where even the mention of desegregation at that time could put a black person’s life in danger. In the mid 1940’s, just after several states passed similar legislation to NJ’s outlawing discrimination, a battle began to ban the American Bowling Congress (ABC) from using the bowling alleys that were then owned by the state or local governments. The ABC had a rule that was written into their charter that stated that only “white men” could compete in their tournaments, a rule they enforced with a heavy hand.

With lawsuits being filed by the NAACP chapters all over the country, including NJ’s, the highly publicized fight to knock down the white pins of racism began. According to Thelma Lowery, formerly Thelma Hunt, who lived at 753 Walnut Street when King and McCall were staying, the best friends and classmates were thrown out of Federal Street Bowl when the two young black men tried to take a stand against discrimination at the all white bowling alley. Thelma said that after that event didn’t go so well, King and McCall began having conversations with her Father about a sleepy little town called Maple Shade, which at that time was known to not be very welcoming to black people.

Benjamin Hunt warned King and McCall against going, as did Hunt’s son, Jesthroe Hunt, who was the late husband of Pastor Jeannette Lilly Hunt, but the pair pushed back. Jesthroe again warned them not to go, telling them that they don’t serve black people. In an article from the Burlington County Times from 1996, Jesthroe said that King fired back, saying”Oh, that’s OK. You think we shouldn’t be going up there, we’ve got to get this thing changed, to the point we can go anywhere.”. That quote, which was made by the America’s greatest civil rights leader, was made on the steps of 753 Walnut Street in Camden, NJ. A home that the state of NJ’s Historic Preservation Office, along with a group of paid researchers from Stockton University, claim to have no historical significance.

That conversation between Jesthroe Hunt and King took place on June 11th, 1950, which is the same fateful day that King, along with Walter McCall, Pearl Smith, and Doris Wilson, went to a Sunday night church service in Merchantville, New Jersey, that was followed up with a visit to a small cafe in Maple Shade, called Mary’s Cafe.

They entered the restaurant at around 11:30 pm on a Sunday evening with the hopes of getting some sandwiches, yet they were met with something quite different. They sat and waited for several minutes until they realized that they were purposely being ignored by the waitress, who at the time, was serving the white patrons freely. The story of exactly what happened at Mary’s Cafe that night has been told a couple of different ways, and that is because several versions of the story exist from people that were actually involved.

The first version that is most commonly told, and also most commonly known, is the version told by the late NJ Superior Court Judge, Thomas McGann, who was the lawyer for the owner of the restaurant, Ernest Nichols. McGann’s version claims that when King and the 3 others entered the Cafe, they attempted to purchase beer, which at that time was illegal to do so on a Sunday after 10pm. McGann claimed that Nichols grew weary of the four very well dressed and well spoken young African Americans, with Nichols claiming that McCall ordered beer to go in what he thought was an attempt to set him up. When McCall ordered the beer, Nichols, who was an ex German Soldier who fought against Russia in World War I, let him know that is was not legal to sell packaged goods on a Sunday.

The statement written by McGann on behalf of Nichols goes on to say that at that point, McCall then asked for a bottle of beer, to which Nichols responded, “No Beer, Mr! Today is Sunday”. At this point, Nichols asks the group to leave, and when they refused he grabbed his gun from his apartment and shoots it in the air out the front door to alert his dog because Nichols claimed that he had been held up before. McGann wrote that during testimony at the court hearing, either King or McCall, testified to “something that might constitute a violation”, which most likely means that they did order some beer. When the case went to the Grand Jury, McGann claims that it was King and McCall who didn’t appear, causing the case to be thrown out for a lack of witnesses.

In an interview with McCall from 1976, he is quoted at saying that “The first civil rights struggle that King had ever been in was with me. It was in Maple Shade, New Jersey”. In the version told by McCall, he claimed the case fizzled out due to the white witnesses who originally agreed to testify had backed out due to pressure from their parents, which seems to be the accepted version amongst historians. McCall also claims that Nichols put the gun in his face, something Nichols, who was found guilty on a weapons charge, denied happening.

The third version comes from Pearl Smith, who just happened to be the second female African American to be made a Philadelphia Police Officer, and who was also McCall’s girlfriend at the time. In the newspaper clippings from the incident, it shows Pearl and Mrs. Pearl Smith, which has been somewhat of a mystery as to why she was on a date with McCall. Information gathered from the recently released US Census shows that as of April 1st, 1950, Pearl was separated from her husband, which answers the decades old question of the “mrs.”, in front of her name.

Pearl’s interview is oddly given two and a half months after the actual incident, and in her statement, she admits to McCall trying to buy beer on a Sunday after 10. Pearl said they entered at about 11:30 pm on a Sunday evening. Once seated, and they realized the waitress wasn’t going to serve them, so McCall stepped up to the bar and asked for a quart of beer and four glasses. Pearl goes on to say that when Nichols refused to serve McCall what Nichols was considering packaged goods, McCall stepped back up to bar and asked for either four glasses of beer, or four glasses of ginger ale, a request that was met by Nichols going and acquiring his gun to shoot it off in the air while using profane language.

The fourth version comes from King Himself, and what he says about the incident in Maple Shade is short, but extremely profound. King was speaking on the steps of the Fellowship House in Philadelphia in 1961 when a reporter asked him about his inspirations. King first mentioned Jesus and Gandhi, but goes on to give his own local experience with segregation. While traveling from Philadelphia to Merchantville, the group stopped at a restaurant to get some food, which we now know to be Mary’s Cafe. King is quoted as saying “they refused to serve us..it was a painful experience because we decided to sit in”. He went on to say that the owner of the establishment produced a pistol saying “I”LL KILL FOR LESS”, which caused the two couples to exit the restaurant and head down to the police station to seek help.

In Pearl’s account she said that at that point they went to the police station and “attempted” to press charges, which leaves a question as to why she said “attempted”? In accounts given by both Jesthroe and Benjamin Hunt, it was at this point that a call was made from King looking for help, a call heeded at midnight by the the President of the NAACP, Dr. Ulysses S. Wiggins. It was sometime around midnight when Wiggins arrived at the police station to assist a 21 year old King and his friends, who were being told that if they charged Nichols with a crime, that they’d have to also charge McCall with one. Wiggins wasn’t hearing it and he went with the group back to the restaurant to seek some witnesses to the refusal of service and weapons violations.

After finding a couple of white students from University of Penn to testify, which was where King was auditing classes at the same time, charges were finally brought against Nichols at 12:45 am on June 12th, 1950, a night that would change the life of Martin Luther King Jr. forever. Court was held that same day, but it was postponed until Thursday due to McGann asking for a postponement so he could best defend Nichols. This postponement created a conundrum for King though, because his brother AD, was set to be married that Friday morning and Martin was supposed to be his best man. Knowing that if they did not appear in court that Nichols would walk, Martin picked up the phone and called his mother and asked to postpone the wedding for a day so that he could be in court later that week, where for the first time in his life, King would testify at civil rights trial and begin his fight to end segregation.

King’s brother A.D. was not happy about the proposition, but his Mother must have heard something in Martin’s voice that was extremely compelling, because the wedding was postponed for a day so Martin could testify in what is now known as “The Maple Shade incident”. Several news outlets covered the court hearings, including the Philadelphia Tribune and a national publication called the Baltimore Afro-American. All of the articles mention that King and his group were joined in court by both Dr. Wiggins and Robert Burk Johnson, who also filed a civl lawsuit on behalf of King and his friends against Nichols.

“Our organization expects to launch a drive soon against public places that refuse accommodations solely on the basis of race and color” said Dr. Wiggins in the Baltimore Afro-American article about the Maple Shade incident. Showing that the Maple Shade incident was not just significant in the trajectory of King’s activism, but also the trajectory of the early civil rights movement for the state of NJ.

Nichols was ultimately found guilty of the weapons violation and fined, yet the case fizzled out in the grand jury phase, so the civil rights violation was never truly fleshed out. Many wonder how such an incredibly important event in King’s life could remain hidden for so long, yet just like in the tales of the super heroes in comic books and movies, the origin story is not meant to be exposed until the final chapter. What many do not realize is that King spoke about the Maple Shade incident often in conversations and in private, as referenced in the 1976 obituary of Ernest Nichols by the President of the SCLC, but for some reason King purposely left it out of his public comments and in his writings. The question of why King would do so can never truly be answered, but the fact is, that he did.

My theory on the reasoning is simple, King didn’t want to risk the movement with a story that could be twisted by the media as a young Minister out at midnight trying to have a beer with some ladies, hence why in the 1961 article when King is quoted about the Maple Shade incident, he intentionally omitted the women from the story and mentions nothing about beer.

King was thrust into the spotlight just five after the Maple Shade incident when he was just 25 years old as the leader of a movement that was too important to risk with any story that could be misconstrued by the media, so he didn’t share the tale of old Ernie Nichols and what took place in Maple Shade to protect the movement, which is noble and completely understandable. What is not noble, nor understandable, is the NJ Historic Preservation Office’s (HPO) treatment of the application filed by researcher and activist, Patrick Duff, to place 753 Walnut Street on the NJ and National Historic Registries. The first preliminary application was filed by Duff on March 16th of 2015, an application process that by the HPO’s own rules, should take no longer than 45 days to have them rule upon. That application sat in limbo for almost 5 years without a ruling by the HPO, that is until Duff decided to sue the HPO for denial to Open Public Records due to the fact that 90% of the emails Duff received regarding the HPO’s handling of the application to place the property on the registry, were redacted.

Just a couple of days after Duff filed suit, the HPO finally released their decision on the property and whether or not it was historically significant, a decision that shocked Duff. In a letter drafted by DEP Commissioner, Ray Bukowski, dated January 31st of 2020, the NJ DEP makes the erroneous claim that, the home and Maple Shade incident, were of “minimal historic import”. The rejection letter included the words and works of two prominent historians in the research of Dr. King, Dr. Lewis V. Baldwin and Professor Patrick Parr, along with the results of a research project funded by the HPO that was competed by Stockton University.

The “research” project’s main researcher on the project is a local historian named Paul Schopp. Schopp holds an associates degree from Burlington County College. Second in command on the project was Stockton Professor John O’Hara, who teaches critical thinking and first year studies. While Stockton University had several professors who were much more qualified in the area of African American history, including two doctorates on the subject, this was the pair chosen to head the $21,000 tax payer funded study.

The “biographical investigation” that was completed in 2017 concluded that both the incident in Maple Shade, as well as 753 Walnut Street, were not historically significant. When the first version of the report was released to Duff, it was filled with inaccuracies that Duff corrected in the comments section of the Dropbox file. The researchers on the report also failed to interview Thelma Lowery, who is a living witness that lived at 753 Walnut Street during the time King was staying at the home.

When Duff questioned the researchers as to why they didn’t interview Thelma, they claimed that they attempted but could not secure an interview on a research project that took almost a full year to complete. Within 24 hours of releasing the first version of the research paper, Duff had already completed a taped interview with Thelma that he provided to the HPO and the research team.

A second version of the research paper was released about two weeks after the first one was, only this time it included the corrections made by Duff, along with the interview with Thelma that was provided and completed by Duff. The conclusions were still the same though, conclusions that if you ask Duff, “were purposely inconclusive and ambiguous”.

Duff reached out to Dr. Lewis V. Baldwin a couple days after the DEP published its rejection letter. Dr. Baldwin has dedicated more than 4 decades to the research and study of the life of Re. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his activism. Dr. Baldwin is the author of 4 books, as well as dozens of papers on the life and activism of Dr. King. Dr. Baldwin is one of the countries most renowned scholars in the subject of Dr. King, yet Duff knew that Dr. Baldwin could not possibly have access to his research, so Duff sent him several files after the two had a short conversation days after Dr. Baldwin’s words were unknowingly used by the NJ DEP. Dr.Baldwin’s opinion on the home and Maple Shade incident, which can be found in letter below, is clear and unambiguous.

Patrick Parr is the author of a book called “The Seminarian”, which is a book dedicated to the period of time that King attended Crozer Seminary School. Parr and Duff have become email friends over the years, exchanging information about King’s time in the Philadelphia area, much of that information Duff shared with Parr helped him shape an entire chapter of Parr’s book. When Duff saw that the rejection letter included nearly two pages of material from Parr’s book, he was shocked that the DEP would dismiss the importance of the Maple Shade event, especially considering that Parr himself wrote “but it would be wrong to dismiss the importance of this event”, but that’s exactly what was done, and is still being done, by the NJ Historic Preservation Office in it’s refusal to approve the now second preliminary application that was filed with them at the end of 2020.

When Duff began this fight in 2015, the home had a demolition sign on the property, as it was set for destruction, something Duff put a stop too. In 2016, the city sent Pastor Hunt a letter threatening to demolish the home, something that Duff again, squashed immediately.

Later that year Congressman John Lewis visited the home and stated “This historic piece of real estate..must be saved for the future generations yet unborn”, a hope that may not be realized due to the deteriorating condition of the home over the last several years. With a massive hole in the roof, and the side of the building buckling, the dream of saving the home for future generations yet unborn, sadly may never be realized.

In a last ditch effort, Duff has joined forces with a group of people in Camden and the surrounding area to raise the funds to stabilize the home in the first phase of a plan to rehabilitate the home and make it a beacon of inspiration for the people of Camden. When asked why Duff continues this battle, he said “One day I was at the house and I was approached by a boy who was around 10 years old, who asked what I was doing at the house? When I told him that Dr. King used to live in that house, his eyes opened as wide as could be and he said “You know what, Mister, that house should be a museum””. From the mouth of babes.

Below are letters written by Professor Patrick Parr and Dr. Lewis V. Baldwin:

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