By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
NEWTONVILLE – The Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center almost seems hidden away on its one mile drive down Jackson Road off Route 54 in Buena Vista Township, but the building and the location is drenched in African-American history.
Newtonville was one of the secluded stops for blacks between Philadelphia and Atlantic City, according to lifelong resident and MLK Center director Quentin McClendon. Many blacks found the rural area comfortable enough to settle, farm the land and raise a family, creating their own slice country living where other urban areas faced the harshness of segregation.
McClendon’s father, Julius, opened the area’s first black-owned barbershop in the 1960s and ran for public office at one time. The park adjacent to the center is named after Wilder Hines, one of the township’s first black officials who served on the Buena Vista township committee from 1983-1987.
In 2016 the center was dedicated to Rev. David Mallory, one of the driving forces for the building and longtime pastor of First Baptist Church in Richland.
“When I was kid, everybody knew everybody,” said McClendon, who also serves the area as a second lieutenant in the local volunteer fire department. “This park was the epicenter for our summer camps. There were these little pockets of entertainment in this little town (for African-Americans). They sold plots of land that predated the Pinelands. They drew people from Philadelphia to New York and they found this little slice of woods where they could cut loose, have a great time, and interact with others.
“Those little pockets were important because in those days, we had to travel cautiously. You had to be in safe places and this was one of those safe places. I think (the attraction) was the farm, the ground, so they could farm. When I was growing up, I got off the bus, the first thing I did was go to the field,” he said.
“When we did our homework, everyone went to the farm. They had crops and we had livestock and when we had extra eggs and you had extra eggs. That was the sense of community,” McClendon added.
MLK Community Center is now one of the epicenters for African-American history in South Jersey. The African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey was been a tenant of the MLK Center almost for as long as the center been in existence. Even though the venerable museum, founded by Ralph Hunter, has expanded to Atlantic City, it still drives plenty of traffic into Newtonville.
That often leads to discussions about the history of African-Americans broadly and locally.
“As soon as someone walks into the center and sees the artwork (from the museum), it immediately starts a conversation,” McClendon said. “Then sometimes that leads into a conversation about the historical, that I can speak to, about the background of the community or some of the things with the African American museum.
“Ralph Hunter lives in Atlantic City, but he always take some time with me when a new exhibit goes up and gives me some basic information. I can at least guide someone through a mini-tour. I always try to include the background of Buena Vista Township and Newtonville specifically because it was predominantly a black town, unincorporated of course, because we’re part of a larger township, but it was definitely a black village for most of my childhood years. Obviously it’s going through a change now,” McClendon continued.
The other tenant is the Gateway Buena Vista Head Start program. The program, part of the Gateway Community Action Partnership in Bridgeton, offers school readiness classes free for children ages through five from September to May. The center also feed children during the summer months while school is out.
The center, which is supported by Buena Vista Township, is a unique building of 14 12-by-60 foot trailers put together. One can hear the pride in McClendon’s voice as he talks about how the center has grown to be a staple in this portion of Atlantic County.
“Over the years, many upgrades have been done,” McClendon said. “We have an A-frame roof that makes it look like one building. It used to be a flat roof. We put the A-frame roof over top and also upgraded it with a generator. In the case of an emergency situation, this can be used as a cooling or heating spot.
“We’ve had storms where a couple of days we’ve been knocked out of power. We’ve had people, elderly people or people that are on medical equipment come here, recharge batteries because we had generators. Those improvements were all done with the support of Buena Vista Township and they maintain the property.”
While the center may be tucked away, McClendon said the word is getting out not only about the center, but it’s rich African-American history as well.
“We get that at least once a week, someone saying, ‘I didn’t even know you were here.” McClendon said. “This space here, this community room, we rent this approximately 25 to 30 times a year now. We have gotten people from as far as Philadelphia use it now. Then we have people who grew up here and moved away come back and bring others with them. We just had a 93-year-old birthday party here for a lady that grew up in this town.”
As a native, McClendon said he takes a great sense of pride serving as the MLK Center’s director. He said he tries to share the vision of his parents, Julius and Lela, taught him when he was growing up in Newtonville.
“I’m very proud of it (the MLK Center),” McClendon said. “I just like to represent our village and our township the best way I can. It’s been fun working a mile away from my house and helping the people that are my neighbors. That’s been a great joy.”
McClendon has been able to spread that joy to everyone who walks through the doors of the MLK Community Center.