Marbles and matchboxes are only a few of the collections Ben Clark has. Collecting is simply something he’s done since he was a little boy.
In the decades since then, his collection grew to include African American cultural artifacts, stamps and currency from around the world and anything else that has struck his fancy.
Clark houses his collection in the basement of the suburban home he shares with his wife Geri. (The pair is not to be confused with the ice cream company, Ben and Geri joked). The couple moved from Jefferson City, Mo., to Fort Wayne in 2013 to be closer to their daughter, Sheryl Ferguson.
Into “the jungle”
“Okay, we’ll go down to the jungle now,” Clark said, descending the basement stairs. “Be sure and use the hand rail because these steps are kind of narrow.”
The 85-year-old maneuvered the steps with relative ease. He has Parkinson’s disease, but he remains active, hitting the gym three times a week to play table tennis with an 89-year-old partner.
The basement is less of a jungle and more of a museum. Binders are stacked neatly, framed artifacts line the walls and items are carefully arranged on tables.
He became serious about collecting when he worked as a mail clerk in Missouri. With all the mail coming across his desk, he started to take notice of the different stamps.
“They tell a story,” he said. “They’re all so beautiful to me. I don’t have favorites.”
Clark spent his boyhood years in Jefferson City. During the Great Depression, his family moved to Kansas City, Mo., to find work. In the early 1950s, Clark served in the Air force and was stationed in Suwon, South Korea.
Later on in his career, Clark worked as a parking attendant for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He enjoyed his time there. As a museum employee, he was privy to private, after hours viewing of the exhibitions and was allowed to bring in 10 guests.
In the 1960s, he also had the opportunity to work with and learn from Cecil Fergerson, the celebrated art curator and community activist. Fergerson started working in the Los Angeles County museum system as a custodian and rose through the ranks to become an art preparator and advocated for the inclusion of African-American artists in the museum’s exhibitions.
When Fergerson started a museum in the black community, Clark would assist with the exhibits.
“He would get the materials and I would do the fixing up – the mounting and what have you of that sort,” Clark said.
The Clarks lived in California from 1958 to 1994 before moving back to Jefferson City and eventually to Fort Wayne.
Today, sharing – not hoarding – his treasures is just as important as collecting them, Clark said. Each item has a story, a history lesson. He has shared his collection at churches, schools, barbershops and the African/African-American Historical Society and Museum of Allen County.
Recently, Clark participated in a black doll show at his church, St. John Missionary Baptist.
He started picking up black dolls at second-hand stores and garage sales, spending less than $10 per doll. While dolls are typically thought of as innocent relics of childhood, the “topsy-turvy” doll has a less light-hearted history.
The doll has two heads and two bodies conjoined at the waist. Typically one doll is black and the other doll is white. When flipped upside down, the doll’s dress reveals one body and hides the other.
Clark’s “topsy-turvy” doll is a replica, so both dolls’ bodies are black, he explained.
“Usually, it’s black on one side and white on the other,” he said. “So if a black kid was playing with it and a white person came along, they could cover that side up. It was okay to have a black [doll], but it wasn’t okay to have a white one.”
Clark’s collection also includes currency minted by Azie Taylor Morton, who served as Treasurer of the United States during the Carter administration from 1977 to 1981. She remains the only African-American to hold that office. Her signature was printed on U.S. currency during her tenure.
Also mounted in his basement is “Currency of the Confederacy.” During the Civil War, the Confederates featured scenes of slavery on their money. Another board displays Jim Crow era advertisements that exploit African- Americans.
Kids today, Clark said, can’t imagine the realities of growing up in a segregated world. They can’t imagine having to enter a restaurant through the back door, he said.
“That’s why I do what I do now,” he said. “If they can’t come to the museum, let me bring the museum to them or a place they can come.”
Keeping up with his growing collection is a lot of work, but it makes him feel relaxed. Geri helps by typing and printing labels. She also helps him from getting carried away, she laughed.
“I support his hobby, but it can get expensive,” she said, remembering the time her husband was eyeing a $900 penny.
Knowledge of Clark’s collection has spread mostly through word of mouth. He has been invited to display and present throughout the community. He welcomes donations, but he is happy to share his collection for free. Educators and others who are interested in viewing his collection can reach him by contacting St. John Missionary Baptist Church.