Activist Fights to Save House Associated with MLK Jr. in Camden

One day in June 1950, Martin Luther King Jr., then a student at Crozer Theological Seminary, stopped at a bar in Maple Shade, New Jersey while traveling with friends. When the bartender denied service to the group, the students refused to leave, staging what some believe may have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s first sit-in. Camden resident Thelma Lowery recalled King discussing the sit-in while living at her family home. Now, residents are fighting to preserve that home and cement Camden’s significance in the history of the Civil Rights movement.

Patrick Duff, a business-owner from Haddon Heights, has led the effort to save the house at 735 Walnut Street. Duff discovered the house’s connection to King in 2014. At the time, many New Jersey officials agreed that the house should be saved. However, the State Historic Preservation Office decided that a study on the house’s historical significance was necessary before it could be deemed a historic landmark. The 2017 study by researchers at Stockton University reported that King had spent time at the house, but that it was unlikely that he had ever lived there. The findings slowed the momentum of preservation efforts.

In the ensuing years, the house, which is currently unoccupied, has fallen into greater disrepair. “The house is going to fall down,” Duff told WHYY. “If it doesn’t get saved in the next year or two, it’s done.”

Previously, Duff fought to memorialize the sit-in at Maple Shade with a plaque at the location of the bar, which had been torn down. The township donated some of the money to fund the plaque, leaving Duff to raise the rest. Ultimately, the project was never finished.

Despite state officials’ inaction, Duff is still fighting to save the last standing structure related to the sit-in at Maple Shade. He estimates that it will cost between $200,000 and $500,000 to save 735 Walnut Street. If preserved, Duff envisions turning the property over to Mighty Writers, a nonprofit that teaches children to write.