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A Black Portrait, in 20,000 Pieces

For now, African American collection is housed in a West Adams garage

June 16, 2002|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Know the right people, ask the right questions and Mayme A. Clayton will gladly invite you in to wander through her semi-secret treasure trove.

If you do, she'll first wind you through the curio-packed rooms of her modest home on the fringes of West Adams. Shelves buckling with books and videos, walls and side tables cluttered with recent snapshots and hand-tinted portraits of another era are merely teasers.

Out back, up five crumbling cement steps, past shaggy trees, a rusting bicycle and a wild tangle of desert succulents, Clayton nimbly negotiates the path in purple suede hiking boots. She slips a key into the lock of her garage side door, which opens onto a startling sight: Harsh fluorescent tubes beam down on towers of books, rising floor to ceiling. They snake, stairstep style, along the wall. They geyser up at the center of the room. They are piled precariously on tables. Amid them are stacks of musty papers--sheet music, old letters, stray photographs, lobby cards. Videos tower like pillars. Photo albums crowd on a makeshift shelf. Bankers' boxes sub as filing cabinets.

On this humid afternoon, Clayton engages in a playful game of show-and-tell, pausing over some highlights. No need for decimal systems, memory serves. She sinks her hand between two particularly prodigious piles, fishing out a slim, signed 1773 edition of "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral" by poet and ex-slave Phillis Wheatley stowed in a box secured with a gold Christmas cord. It is the first published book by an African American.

Signed first editions of Zora Neale Hurston's fiction and folklore share shelf space with aging, exquisite editions of Paul Laurence Dunbar's poetry, the essays of W.E.B. DuBois and the fiction of Richard Wright. In a gust of dust and mildew, Clayton, riffling through the card catalog in her head, puts her hands on letters, some sheathed in plastic, others open to the elements: a note typed by Josephine Baker; handwritten correspondence--yellowed and fading--from George Washington Carver on letterhead from Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. And with a conspiratorial wink, she passes under the light a fragile text, the memoir, nearly a century and a half old, of ex-slave and abolitionist Sojourner Truth.

The Western States Black Research and Educational Center, as Clayton has named this expansive, idiosyncratic collection, is her close-to-the-heart endeavor to preserve African American memorabilia. In what is arguably the largest such collection on the West Coast, Clayton figures she has amassed upward of 20,000 pieces--more than 500 films, 300 videos and thousands of books and magazines, along with sheet music, tracts and pamphlets. There are framed advertisements for hair care products and breakfast cereal, old movie and jazz stills.

But there are no sprinklers or fire extinguishers. No climate control. Insurance? "We need to have more," she says. Security? "My dog," she declares, placing her folded fists on her hips. "I don't need anything more than that. Some guy jumped over the fence, and I came out and Tootie had him pinned against the wall!"

Today is a particularly busy day in a particularly busy season for Clayton. Sporting in a bright orange sweatshirt and kente-patterned beads, she threads herself through the narrow curves of crawl space, with an urgent sense of duty. Normally, around this time of year, she is getting ready for the annual Reel Black Cowboy Film Festival at the Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage, assembling films and other related period ephemera. But lately, Clayton has begun the serious first steps of planning for a permanent home for her hard-won collection, assisted by her oldest son, Avery.

A retired librarian, Clayton, 78, has been building this collection since the early 1970s. It's a vast and eclectic library that attracts collectors, writers, actors and scholars from across the country. Actor-director Ivan Dixon ("Hogan's Heroes") has spread the word in his circle about Clayton's holdings. Film and TV historian Donald Bogle considers Clayton's collection "unmatchable and invaluable." And Alex Haley, who knew a little something about the importance of a connect-the-dots legacy, visited, then inscribed a note inside the center's copy of "Roots": "For my brothers and sisters, I deeply share your sentiments that our history should be preserved."

Over the years, Clayton has been wooed and courted. She's entertained offers that sounded too good to be true from universities and from various social organizations institutions, public and private, all earnest efforts to help get these fragile books, records and priceless papers safely stored. But Clayton hasn't always been so happy with the follow-through. She's been even less enthusiastic about her would-be helpers' plans. "So many have wanted to pitch in. But," she says wagging a finger, "you have to be careful about phonies."

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