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Safeguarding Black History

Safeguarding Black History
Late librarian’s collection could rival that of the Schomburg.

Back when Harry Truman was in the White House, long before “Black History Month” became part of our lexicon, African- American librarian Mayme Agnew Clayton began waging a one-woman war to safeguard Black history.

She executed her mission one artifact at a time, and succeeded brilliantly until succumbing to pancreatic cancer last October, at age 83. A scratch golfer who had been a librarian with the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles, Clayton amassed what’s believed to be the world’s largest privately held collection of African-American literature and artifacts.

Threatened by mildew and silverfish, Clayton’s treasure trove of more than 30,000 rare and out-of-print books by Black authors is crammed into an unremarkable Los Angeles garage. But her son, artist Avery Clayton, is working to ensure that his mother’s material legacy receives the acclaim and academic scrutiny it deserves. “I always had a desire to want to know more about my people,” Mayme Clayton said in an interview posted on the History Makers Web site. “It just snowballed, it just kept going. I have invested every dime that I have, everything that I have, in books for future generations. It may change somebody’s life — you can never tell.”

Somewhere amongst the boxes, file cabinets and bookcases stacked to the ceiling of the garage behind Clayton’s modest house is a signed copy of Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley, a 1773 publication thought to be the first book by an African-American. Avery Clayton says his overriding concern is simply extricating the collection from the garage. Meteorologists predict that El Niño will bring unprecedented rains to Los Angeles this winter, which worries Clayton. “While the garage has held for many, many years, I’m really concerned about the safety of the
collection at this point,” he says.

Born in Van Buren, Ark., in 1923, Mayme Clayton moved to Los Angeles 23 years later, around the time she began amassing her archive. Fascinated by African-American educator Mary McLeod Bethune, who in 1904 founded what would become Bethune- Cookman College, Clayton began latching onto Bethune artifacts. Clayton was a savvy and shrewd acquisitionist who earned a bachelor’s degree from UC-Berkeley, a master’s degree in library science from Goddard Collegeand a doctorate from Sierra University, in Los Angeles.

She worked as a librarian at USC before moving to UCLA, where she was a founding member of that school’s Afro-American Studies Center Library. Clayton also collected Black-themed film and founded the Black American Cinema Society.

USC history professor Dr. Philip Ethington says Clayton assembled an archive of Black literature that could rival that of Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

UC-Santa Barbara professor Dr. Cynthia Hudley says Clayton’s archive will help advance the public’s understanding of Black history.

“When you get a collection like the Clayton collection, it helps you understand
the many, many ways that African- Americans have been a part of the political, social and economic fabric of America,” says Hudley, whose academic specialty is child and adolescent development.

Librarians are also eager for Mayme Clayton’s collection to be fully explored and catalogued, says Sara Hodson, curator for the Huntington Library, a private research library located in San Marino, about 12 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

“For all of us in similar institutions in the greater Los Angeles area, we are all delighted to see the Clayton Library go forward,” she says. “It’s exciting to be able to welcome a new sister institution that has such superb holdings.”

Avery Clayton say the project is being held up by a lack of finances. He estimates it will cost $565,000 just to move, refurbish and inventory the collection, which includes 75,000 photographs, tens of thousands of manuscripts, documents and pieces of correspondence and 9,500 sound recordings.

It will cost $8.2 million to operate the Clayton Library, to be located at an old Culver City, Calif., courthouse, for three years, adds Clayton, who’s already approaching potential foundational, corporate and individual donors.

“My mother assembled this collection as an act of pure love,” he says. “She really used her life, I think, in a remarkable way.”

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