Dr. Mayme A. Clayton: a Champion of Black History
January 8, 2010 1:13 PM   Subscribe

Dr. Mayme Agnew Clayton was a librarian and collector in Los Angeles who left behind a collection of remarkable value. Over the course of more than 40 years, she had collected the largest privately held collection of African-American materials, with over 30,000 rare and out-of-print books, 1,700 films dating back to 1916, as well as more than 75,000 photographs and scores of movie posters, playbills, programs, documents and manuscripts. Her collection, which has been compared to the Schomburg Collection in the New York City Public Library, was opened to the public in 2007.

Mayme Clayton started collecting when she was a child in Van Buren, Arkansas. Growing up, she was the daughter of the town's only black merchant, and her parents taught her of black achievements. Her parents told her about pioneering educator Mary McLeod Bethune, the daughter of former slaves who went on to found schools for blacks and advise several presidents. Dr. Clayton's search for books on Bethune started her on the path of the collector.

Mayme Clayton moved to New York City after studying at the Lincoln University of Missouri. In New York, she was married, and the couple moved to California in 1946 to start their family. In 1954 she became an assistant to the librarian at USC. Two years later, she was hired as a library assistant at UCLA's law library. She was co-owner of a bookstore in the early 1970s, and when the store closed, she was given its complete inventory of books by and about blacks and opened Third World Ethnic Books out of her home. Eventually, Clayton found that she enjoyed collecting books more than selling them.

While running the business, she earned a bachelor's degree in history from UC Berkeley in 1974. She received a master's in library science from Goddard College in Vermont in 1975 and a doctorate in humanities from the now-closed Sierra University in Santa Monica in 1983.

In 1972, Mayme Clayton founded the nonprofit organization Western States Black Research and Educational Center to promote the preservation of African American history. While she lived, WSBREC and the collection resided in her home and garage, spaces that had no climate control and were protected by a locked door and the family dog. As her collection grew, so did it's renown, and with it came inquiries from public and private organizations to help secure the treasure-trove of African-American media. Dr. Clayton was hesitant to hand her collection over. "So many have wanted to pitch in. But, you have to be careful about phonies." In the early 2000s, she and her son Avery were actively looking into building a new structure to house the collection and provide access to the public.

Dr. Mayme Clayton lived to October 2006, long enough to see Avery secure the former courthouse in Culver City, California for $1 a year. She passed a few days after the arrangement was settled, at the age of 83. Avery carried the efforts forward, and the collection moved into its new home on February 12, 2007. The Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum was opened to the public in November 2007 (PDF). Avery Clayton continued his mother's legacy, but he, too, passed on, on November 26, 2009. UC Santa Barbara education professor Cynthia Hudley was named as the next director.

The collection is divided into five categories: literary, documents, films, music, photographs and memorabilia. The literature collection of over 30,000 titles includes the only known signed copy of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773 by Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), which is considered by leading experts to be the first author of African descent to be published in America. The book was written when it was illegal to teach blacks to read or write, throughout the Western Hemisphere. The film archive is the largest Black film archive, with works dating back to 1916, and has been called "unmatchable and invaluable" by film historian Donald Bogle. This collection is being held by the UCLA School of Film and Television. In exchange for access to this archive, the university is doing any restoration work needed.
posted by filthy light thief (6 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
This is an amazing post! Thanks so much for letting us know about this remarkable woman.
posted by hector horace at 2:47 PM on January 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I saw this article on Avery Clayton's death a couple of months ago and filed it away with the intention of maybe doing a post about it. Thank god I didn't. Bravo, Sir.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 3:08 PM on January 8, 2010

Ah, bother. It's not officially open to the public, though I think you can arrange to get a tour. I first saw about the museum and Dr. Clayton in a Southern California travel magazine, so I assumed it was open to all (even though the website states "Hours of Operation: Currently not open to the public, opening in late 2011/early 2012.")

Here's some video that I didn't include in the post:
- Avery Clayton talking about his mother's work, Youtube clip (7:16)
- PBS History Detectives clip, interviewing Avery Clayton (4:55)
- Americans in Focus: Mayme Clayton, Youtube clip* (1:30)

* That clip displays a URL: AmericansInFocus.org, which attempts to forward to a FoxSports.com site. Searching for Americans In Focus turns up this site that looks more fitting, but is still hosted on FoxSports.com, which really confuses me. The related episodes are all sports clips, nothing about "Americans who have excelled in professions that initially were considered outside the realm of possibility for a person of color."
posted by filthy light thief at 3:24 PM on January 8, 2010

This is an incredible post (and another data point for the theory that the best posts sometimes garner the fewest comments). Thank you.
posted by jokeefe at 10:14 PM on January 8, 2010

thank you digging up the supporting links as well, I have a friend who will be thrilled with a link to this post
posted by infini at 3:11 AM on January 9, 2010

Fun tangent: An incomplete run of Ebony magazine (starting in 1959 with volume 15) is available to browse on Google Books (via MetaChat). Dr. Clayton obtained a copy of the first edition for a dime at a garage sale, and refused to give or lend it to Ebony founder John H. Johnson, as he hadn't kept one for himself.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:30 AM on January 13, 2010

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