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A Champion of Black History

Librarian Mayme Clayton, who scoured stores, attics and even dumps to amass a prized collection that she kept in her garage, has died.

October 21, 2006|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

In Los Angeles, a city known for discarding history, Mayme Clayton defied convention by collecting it.

For four decades she prowled garage sales, flea markets, attics, used-book stores, even dumps. From these waste heaps of memory, the soft-spoken librarian rescued thousands of rare and unusual books, movies, sound recordings, photographs, letters and ephemera, much of it dating to the slavery era.

With limited funds but boundless determination, she eventually amassed what experts today regard as a valuable and eclectic collection of black Americana. Its most glorious holding is a signed copy of the first book published by an African American: ex-slave Phillis Wheatley's "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral" of 1773.

A bit of an eccentric, Clayton piled the Wheatley book and all her other treasures in the garage behind her humble West Adams home. She filled it to the rafters and prayed that the roof wouldn't leak, all the while maintaining faith that one day she would share its riches with the public in a more suitable setting.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 10, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
Clayton obituary: A caption accompanying the obituary of Mayme Clayton in Section A on Oct. 21 incorrectly identified an 1897 photograph of a child as a stereo daguerreotype. It was a stereograph, a popular form of paper photography in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The daguerreotype process, in which an image is exposed directly onto a mirror-polished surface of silver, was out of vogue by then.

Her dream moved an important step closer to fruition last week, when a group of local officials toured the future home of the Mayme A. Clayton Library, Museum & Cultural Center: a 21,000-square-foot former courthouse in Culver City. It is conceived as a temporary resting spot, but a crucial one, where an estimated 30,000 items can be conserved, cataloged and protected from humidity, insects and other hazards that made Clayton's garage an archivist's nightmare.

Clayton, who had pancreatic cancer, was too sick to join the tour but heard from her family that it had been a success. Early the next day, Oct. 13, she died at Centinela Hospital in Inglewood. She was 83.

"Once she knew her collection was going to be OK, she was able to go in peace," said Avery Clayton, the eldest of her three sons, who is leading the effort to build an institution to preserve and extend his mother's legacy.

The Clayton family's long-term goal is to build a world-class museum and research center in Los Angeles with the collection as the centerpiece. But their immediate objective is to raise $50,000 to move the materials out of Clayton's garage before the rainy season begins. Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) helped obtain $150,000 in federal start-up funds, but that money will not be available until early next year.

Plans call for a $6.8-million campaign to renovate the Culver City building, hire a staff and prepare the collection for a grand opening in 2008.

Significance Hailed

The full worth of what Clayton left behind awaits the assessment of scholars and conservation specialists, but those familiar with the collection describe it as an extraordinary achievement by a woman of modest means.

"Mayme Clayton performed an absolutely vital act of generosity and foresight in collecting what she did," said Sara Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts for the Huntington Library in San Marino. She said Clayton should be remembered as a hero who has "ensured that cultural treasures that might have been overlooked have been preserved and will be made available in the future."

Hodson is one of several scholars who consider Clayton's collection one of the most important of its kind in the country.

"It's probably the most important outside the Schomburg in New York," said Darnell Hunt, a sociology professor and director of UCLA's Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library, is the home of the nation's most prestigious black history archives, with more than 5 million items documenting the African and African American experience.

Howard Dodson, the Schomburg's director, called Clayton's collection "major and significant," particularly for its holdings on the black experience in the American West. He said it is stronger than the Schomburg in its materials dealing with African American migration to California and blacks in Hollywood.

There are two kinds of collectors of black Americana, Dodson said: those who are interested in collecting as a financial investment and those with a passion for finding "the missing pages of history." Clayton, he said, clearly belonged in the latter category: "She had this notion that there was important material out there that was not being preserved," a sense of "if not her, then who?"

Valerie Shaw, a Los Angeles author and publicist who knew Clayton many years, said the librarian did not project the image of an astute collector.

"When I met her, I remember knowing who she was but seeing this bespectacled lady in what looked like a secondhand Salvation Army suit and coat and rundown shoes," Shaw said. "I expected her to be quite the grande dame. She never was that. She was always very humble.

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