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The Rev. James Benson; started Lawnside museum

"What were most important" to the Rev. James A. Benson, according to his daughter, "were God, family, and his museum."

James A. Benson
James A. BensonRead more

"What were most important" to the Rev. James A. Benson, according to his daughter, "were God, family, and his museum."

Mr. Benson, 81, who built the Benson Multi-Cultural History Museum in his hometown of Lawnside and was a minister for three decades, died Sunday, Dec. 8, at Virtua Voorhees hospital.

He had been ill for a long time, said Bethany Benson King, the youngest of his three daughters. "The museum," she said, "became his legacy."

"He was a minister, an A.M.E., for 30 years, and he made quite an impact on the community through that," she said. "But I believe the museum was his heart, that was his passion."

Benson King said the idea of a museum came to her father in 1980 at Valley Bible Word of Faith school in Lawnside, where he taught.

As he was helping students, "he would put pictures up, and soon enough, the walls began to be covered with experiences," she said. "People from throughout the surrounding community who understood what he was trying to do began to give him artifacts and antiques."

The museum opened in 1982 on the ground floor of the school at 427 Pine St.

"His goal was to make people understand and appreciate the contributions of the men and women that made up the fabric of our heritage," Benson King said.

Mr. Benson was born in Lawnside on Oct. 1, 1932, and attended Lawnside School and Haddon Heights High School.

Benson King, a musician, said her father also inspired her love of music.

"He was a bass player for many years," she said. "He had his own jazz band in the late 1950s and early '60s."

He attended Combs College of Music in Philadelphia and the Center for Urban Theological Studies at Geneva College, also in Philadelphia, where he trained to be a minister.

He was ordained in 1978, and spent the next 30 years preaching. He pastored several churches in South Jersey, including Mount Pisgah A.M.E. Church in Haddonfield; Trinity, in Cinnaminson; and Hosanna, in Camden.

"He just loved to study and teach the word of God," Benson King said. "He always believed that God called him to teach and preach the Gospel."

The Rev. Terrell Person, 64, trained under Mr. Benson at Mount Pisgah during the mid-1980s and early '90s.

"He entrusted me as someone who was really sincere about the Gospel," Person said Thursday. "He was the kind of man who loved to talk the walk and walk the talk. He was compassionate about people's needs.

"He recognized my calling before I did," said Person, now a minister at Jacobs Chapel A.M.E. Church in Mount Laurel. "Our relationship was like Paul and Timothy in the Bible. Timothy was a younger minister coming in, and Paul was the mentor. [Mr. Benson] wanted to make sure that he ministered to the total person - the spirit, soul and body."

Mr. Benson retired from the ministry in 2008 and then devoted most of his time to the museum.

"He said that everyone should know whose shoulders they're standing on and how they got to where they are, and that they could do it, too," Benson King said. "The museum was to encourage everyone. That was important to him - to educate, enlighten, and encourage."

On the museum's website,, the goal is stated: "As you walk around the museum you are filled with pride and you realize just how extraordinary Lawnside, N.J., the only African American incorporated municipality in the northern United States, truly is."

"I think he accomplished his mission," Benson King said. "He passed knowing that me and my husband would do what we could to make sure [the museum] would continue."

The Benson Multi-Cultural History Museum is open Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. There is no admission charge, but those who come are asked to make a small donation.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Ellen, to whom he was married for 58 years; daughters Tanya Bailey and the Rev. Pamela Phillips; and five grandchildren.

A viewing will be from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, followed immediately by a service, at Haddonfield United Methodist Church, 29 Warwick Rd. Burial will be at the Brig. Gen. William C. Doyle Veterans Cemetery in Wrightstown.