By Mihir Zaveri
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born in an upstairs bedroom of a two-story home in Atlanta in 1929.
He lived there for 12 years with his parents and grandparents, grandparents, growing up in a predominantly African American neighborhood called Sweet Auburn that was an economically diverse cluster of businesses, churches and homes.
For decades, Dr. King’s childhood home at 501 Auburn Avenue has helped showcase that part of the civil rights leader’s legacy, linking his feats later in life to his beginnings, when he was a young boy nicknamed “M.L.”
Over the years, concerns emerged about the maintenance of the home, which was owned by the nonprofit Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. Now the home has a new owner, the National Park Service, which hopes to repair and preserve the birthplace of Dr. King.
The National Park Foundation, the charity arm of the park service, bought the home from the King Center for $1.9 million. Money for the purchase came from private gifts by anonymous donors, and the home was turned over to the National Park Service on Nov. 27, Will Shafroth, the foundation president, said on Friday. News of the sale surfaced this week.
“We didn’t get to renovate it at the level that it should have been and preserve it at the level it should have been,” Bernice A. King, Dr. King’s daughter and chief executive of the King Center, said. “I think the time was ripe to do this, and it gives us an opportunity to transfer this to an entity that does an extremely good job at preserving and telling the stories of our history in America.”
The park service has been running tours of the home since 1984, after Congress made it part of a larger national historic site that includes the King Center complex, which is also where Dr. King is buried. “This is a big deal, one of the most important acquisitions,” Shafroth said.
He said the park service plans to “improve and enhance” the home, which in 2017 had 584,435 visitors. Details of the improvements, which will include repairs not visible to visitors, such as the heating, are still being determined.
Shafroth said repairs would cost in the millions of dollars but could not provide a specific figure.
“There’s a lot of wear and tear,” Mr. Shafroth said.
Dr. King’s mother was the daughter of the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, which was three blocks away, and where Dr. King and his father would later preach. Ms. King said being steeped in the church and growing up in a loving environment that fostered inquisitiveness helped spur her father’s spiritual growth.
As a boy, Dr. King had formative experiences with segregated America. In his autobiography, he recounted having a white playmate whose father owned a store across the street from his home. The playmate would come over to his house almost every day, but they went to separate schools.
“The climax came when he told me one day that his father had demanded that he would play with me no more,” Dr. King wrote. “I never will forget what a great shock this was to me. I immediately asked my parents about the motive behind such a statement.”
In 1941, Dr. King and his family moved three blocks from their Auburn Avenue home. Ms. King said that buildings in the area, including the original home, were slated for demolition around 1966. But Dr. King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, successfully lobbied against their destruction.
“Her vision, ultimately, was to ensure that this legacy is perpetuated through
generations,” Ms. King said of her mother, who founded the King Center.
The home where Dr. King was born was deeded to the King Center by his parents in the 1970s, Ms. King said. In 1980, Congress established the Martin Luther King Jr.
National Historic Site, which included the home. In January, the federal government
re-designated the historic site the Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Park.
Ms. King said negotiations about the sale began last year. Months of complicated discussions ensued. She said some members of the King Center’s board were reluctant to approve the sale.
“When you have a personal connection to something, it’s not easy to want to release it,” she said. “I think people just had to work through those sentimental feelings to get to a place where they were comfortable with seeing it change owners.”
Mr. Shafroth said the purchase price accounts both for the value of the property and for its historic significance.
“This is a fairly priceless part of our nation’s history,” he said. Alain Delaquérière contributed research.