Bernice King, left, walks past the crypt of her parents, Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, on Wednesday. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJ
Photo: ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJ

Bernice King on the sale of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth home

‘My mother never saw us in the preservation business’

Funny the things we take for granted. 

Bernice King’s family purchased the yellow and brown two-story house at 501 Auburn Avenue in 1909, and the foundation she runs took possession of it in 1973. But it wasn’t until about 15 years ago that the daughter of  Martin Luther King Jr. got an extensive tour of his birth home. 

“When we got to the dining room, (the full dining room table) captured my attention,” King said. “We have moved away from families sitting at the table. My grandfather used to sit there and talk to my father, Aunt Christine (King Farris), Uncle A.D. (King) and of course my grandmother (Alberta Williams King), and allow them to express themselves. Today, we take for granted the things we are close to.”

»RELATED: King Birth Home sold

The National Park Service purchased the deed to Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth home from the King family. The family purchased the yellow and brown two-story house at 501 Auburn Avenue in 1909. 
Photo: Jessica McGowan/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

»AJC EXCLUSIVE: The death and Life of Martin Luther King Jr. 

For the first time in more than 100 years, aside from the name, the birth home will not be directly affiliated with anyone in the King family or their businesses. 

In November, the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change Inc, which has owned the home for 45 years and where Bernice King serves as CEO, sold the home for $1.9 million to the National Park Foundation, which in turn gave it to the National Park Service. 

“It is difficult to value something this significant in our nation’s history,” said Will Shafroth, CEO of the National Park Foundation. “It is a priceless asset. It is one of the most important places to tell the story of America.” 

Bernice King, in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said the King Center had been considering selling the Birth Home since before Coretta Scott King’s death in 2006. 

King said the King Center, the family’s nonprofit arm, needs to focus more on educational and training programs that focus on nonviolence. 

“We are working on creating more robust, nonviolence training,” King said. “Our society is desperately in need of Dr. King’s nonviolent teachings right now in order to create a just, humane and peaceful world. That is what we are trying to put our energy in.”

»RELATED: Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream before the Dream

December 23, 2014 Atlanta - The Atlanta Streetcar on Auburn Avenue in Martin Luther King, Jr., Historic District for a test run on Tuesday, December 23, 2014. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: Hyosub Shin

The home is located on what John Wesley Dobbs once referred to as the "richest Negro street in the world," because of its one-time high concentration of African-American businesses and fine homes. It was built in 1895 by a white firefighter for his family. 

In 1909, the Rev. Adam Daniel Williams, who was the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church and the maternal grandfather of Martin Luther King Jr., purchased the house for $3,500. When King’s parents got married in 1927, they moved into the home, occupying the top floors. Each of the three King siblings, including Martin Luther King Jr., were born in the home — he arrived on Jan. 15, 1929. 

The family lived there until 1941, at which point they rented it out. In 1973, King’s mother, Alberta Williams King, transferred the property over to the King Center. The National Park Service began offering tours of the home in 1982 and since 1984 the federal agency has run the day-to-day operation of the home, offering maintenance and free tours.

The greater Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site includes the Visitor Center at 450 Auburn Ave.; the Historic Fire Station No. 6; the King Center (including Freedom Hall and the grave sites of Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr.); and historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.

“My mother never saw us in the interpretive or preservation business,” King said. “The National Park Service has been managing and upkeeping the birth home for years, we have just been the owner on record.” 

The Eternal Flame burns near the King tomb at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site 
Photo: AJC file

»RELATED:  MLK personal writings take new generation beyond ‘I Have a Dream’

Elizabeth Paradis Stern, strategic communications adviser for the National Park Service, said tourists and visitors to the home should not notice any difference in services now that the ownership of the home has changed hands. 

“The most important thing about this is that this property will be protected and preserved permanently as one of our most important properties,” Stern said. “It is part of the American fabric.” 

Behind the scenes, millions more will be raised to renovate and rehabilitate the home. In 2017, the house was closed over several long stretches for repairs in preparation for the 2018 rush of visitors around the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination. 

“What is different is the (park service) can bring their dollars to bear on the condition of the home and do necessary renovation work,” Shafroth said. “We know that there are significant investments that need to be made and we are working to raise private funds to do that.”

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