Lawnside resident Morris L. Smith will never forget where he was on April 4, 1968 — the day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed.
“I was devastated. I couldn’t believe it,” said Smith.
At the time, Smith was the board president of the Lawnside School District. He called a board meeting on April 9, just days after Dr. King’s murder.
When asked why he called for that meeting, Smith replied, “to make a recommendation that we would honor him with a district holiday.”
The board minutes are framed in the school lobby along with the resolution adopted that day proclaiming Jan. 15 of each year as a school holiday in memory of Dr. King. Smith believes the Lawnside Board of Education was the first governing body in the nation to establish Jan. 15 as a school district holiday.
“The fact that we were a school board, a district, was important because we could set an example for the nation, and also have the purpose of the holiday was not just to be off, but to honor him prior to that day with a discussion of what he had done and what his family had done,” said Smith.
In October 1968, Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s wife, wrote a letter to the Lawnside Board of Education thanking it for the resolution. Just a few blocks away from the school is a small, white house. Like King, the man who lived in it, stood for freedom and equality.
“The Peter Mott House is a house museum that the community of Lawnside helped restore to memorialize Peter Mott, who was a Sunday school superintendent at the local African Methodist Episcopal Church and an agent of the Underground Railroad,” said Lawnside Historical Society President Linda Shockley.
The Lawnside Historical Society says Mott often helped fugitives escaping slavery. He connected them to abolitionists in places like Haddonfield and Moorestown, and there’s also a good chance some were hidden on the property.
“He was literally a lifesaver and he was risking his own life, as well as risking his own freedom because one of the penalties for assisting people who are escaping from slavery was to be arrested, and enslaved yourself if you were an African-American,” said Shockley.
Lawnside Mayor Mary Ann Wardlow is determined to ensure the community continues to honor Peter Mott and Dr. King. The borough recently renamed a street Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Road.
“We have children now, three generations under me that they never understood why we fought so hard for them to go to school, why we wanted them to graduate, why we wanted them to go to college. We also want them to know whose shoulders they stood on and that makes a great difference,” said Wardlow.