Fire severely damages New Jersey house where MLK stayed

Mar 11, 2023, 10:55 AM

CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) — A dilapidated house where Martin Luther King Jr. stayed in southern New Jersey was severely damaged in an early morning fire Saturday.

Chief Michael Harper of the Camden Fire Department told the Courier-Post that the blaze at the three-story row home was reported shortly after 2:30 a.m., and the precarious structure presented challenges to fire crews.

“The place was already boarded and heavily fortified when our members got there,” he said. “They had to open the boards but by that time, the fire was pretty well advanced. They couldn’t make entry because of concerns about the structural integrity.”

Camden city spokesperson Vince Basara told NJ.com that fire crews reported heavy flames from the rear of the second floor and part of the roof later collapsed. The blaze spread to the home next door and four nearby residents had to evacuate, he said. No injuries were reported.

The city’s fire marshal is investigating the cause of the blaze. Basara said it’s possible the building may be deemed an unsafe structure and condemned after the city inspects it.

Local activists for years had been seeking a historic designation and grant money as well as donations to restore the structure they call MLK House Camden, which NJ.com in mid-January described as “a deteriorating ruin, with collapsed ceilings and gaping holes in the walls.”

Officials said they hoped “to restore this historical landmark and create a museum where people can see where Dr. King slept, ate, prepared his messages, and plotted his first anti-discrimination lawsuit.”

According to NJ.com, King and a classmate stayed at the home between 1949 and 1951 while attending the now-closed Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania.

Patrick Duff, a Haddon Heights resident leading efforts to uncover more history about the unit and secure a historic designation, said King had stayed at the home while planning his first sit-in, which took place in nearby Maple Shade at Mary’s Café in 1950. He told the Courier-Post on Saturday that a squatter had taken up residence and he’d warned city officials about the potential for a fire.

In 2016, the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a friend of King’s, stood in front of the house with U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, D-NJ, and proclaimed, “This piece of historic real estate must be saved for generations yet unborn,” NJ.com reported.

The New Jersey Historic Preservation Office, however, rejected a historic designation in 2020, saying there wasn’t enough information to show King was a long-term resident there. The office, citing a 2017 Stockton University study, said that didn’t mean King was never at the home, just that his visits “were just that: visits.”

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Fire severely damages New Jersey house where MLK stayed