N.J. firefighters respond to ‘all-hands-on deck’ fire call at home where MLK once lived
Part of the Camden row home’s roof collapsed, but no one was hurt
By Nyah Marshall
CAMDEN, N.J. — A fire Saturday morning further destroyed a deteriorated row-home in Camden that advocates have spent more than eight years trying to save because of its connection to Martin Luther King Jr.
Firefighters responded to an “all-hands-on deck” call around 2:30 a.m. after a report that the abandoned, dilapidated home at 753 Walnut St. was on fire, according to officials.
Heavy flames were coming from the rear of the second floor of the home when firefighters arrived, resulting in the roof of the unit partially collapsing.
Before it was extinguished, the fire spread to the next-door home and four nearby residents had to evacuate, city spokesperson Vince Basara said.
No one was injured in the fire, officials said.
The city fire marshal is still investigating the cause of the blaze, which heavily damaged the roof of the structure on Walnut Street where local researchers say the famous civil rights leader once lived.
Local advocates trying to restore and preserve the home say that this incident will not deter their efforts because most of the structure, including the roof, needed to be completely renovated anyway.
“I’m so glad that the front withstood the fire,” said Pastor Amir Khan, a Camden County activist who purchased the home last year.
“The whole inside had to be gutted and redone anyway, the whole roof had to be done it was in terrible shape prior to this. So I mean, we’re not going to miss a beat on this,” he said.
The hope is that a recent $99,789 grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust for a “survey” of civil rights sites in Camden will help designate the house as a landmark and turn it into a museum, according to Khan.
Before Khan took ownership of it, lifelong Camden resident Jeanette Lilly Hunt owned the home, which was originally her father-in-law’s up until 2021. It was primarily used for storage and had many code violations, officials said.
Hunt was a young woman when King and his classmate, Walter McCall, stayed at her father-in-law’s home between 1949 and 1951 while attending the now-closed Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania.
In the midst of Hunt paying the property taxes on the house, hoping the city would preserve it, Haddon Heights resident Patrick Duff was leading efforts to uncover more history about the unit and get it historically designated.
Duff discovered that King had stayed at the Camden home when he planned his first sit-in, which took place in nearby Maple Shade at Mary’s Café in 1950.
In 2016, civil rights icon John Lewis, the late congressman and a friend of King, stood in front of the house with U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, D-1st Dist., and proclaimed, “This piece of historic real estate must be saved for generations yet unborn.”
Attempts to get the structure on the state and national historic registry list were rejected because of the lack of historical evidence that King was a long-term resident there, the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office said in 2020.
Once the New Jersey Historic Trust grant funds are dispersed, Khan says he will move forward with phase one of the MLK House Camden project: restoration of the 753 Walnut Street unit.
“I’m a little more encouraged now than I was by seeing the newscast and seeing pictures,” Khan said. “Code enforcement and fire marshals, they’re 100% behind it... they understand the historical significance of this. They want to do whatever they have to do to make sure this turns into that museum that we’re praying it will be for the city of Camden.”