World’s Largest Collection Coming To Culver - Part 1


February 4, 2010

Mayme Clayton Library Plans Soft Opening This Year

First of two parts

What if there were a city where teachers could bring their students to see artifacts found nowhere else in the world? What if esteemed scholars descended on a city for its treasure trove of knowledge? What if entire families could trace their ancestry and culture?

Could it be Alexandria, Egypt, London, Paris or Culver City? Yes, it is Culver City when the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum (MCLM) opens at 4130 Overland Avenue, which will house the world’s largest collection of African Americana. It was an auspicious moment when Culver City leased the 23,000 square-foot building to Mayme Clayton’s son, Avery for the rent of $1 per year in 2006.

Obtaining the building presented a special challenge because it is on a state land way but is a county courthouse in Culver City, thus involving the agencies of three governments. Albert Vera, the former three-time mayor and owner of Sorrento Italian Market, was instrumental, especially in getting Governor Schwarzenegger’s aid, and county supervisor Yvonne Burke was on board from the inception because she knew Mayme Clayton.

Culver Cit y mayor Andy Weissman and assistant city manager Shelly Wolfberg have been very helpful. Also, there have been hand-me-downs of shelving from other libraries and glass display cases from LACMA.

With all artistic institutions scrambling for donations to continue their work, the Mayme Clayton Library Board is optimistic that the entire contents will be on view by 2011, but only with the very generous aid of many supporters, neighbors and friends.. The inestimable collection is in place at the Overland building, but much work must be done to make it a safe haven for such delicate artifacts.

Fortunately a HUD grant of $245,000 has been obtained for renovation of a section but not the whole building. However, in late 2010 a soft opening is planned for a limited viewing of items in the completed area.

Lonnie Bunch, the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, says, “ It has an array of material that covers the sweep of African American life-from slavery to the migration of blacks from South to North—as well as wonderful material on California. The fact that it has great breadth has great significance. There are probably 10 or 12 books yet to be written out of her collection.”

According to Darnell Hunt, a sociology professor and director of the UCLA Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, “It’s probably the most important collection outside the Schomburg Center in New York “

Before 83 -year-old Mayme Clayton died of pancreatic cancer in 2006 she was asked what motivated her to amass the library’s contents, She replied, “ I wanted to be sure that children would know that black people have done great things, and at the time I didn’t see anyone else saving the history.”

It is fitting that the Clayton Library maintains a substantial collection of the early publications of Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Month, and that Dr. Clayton has followed in his footsteps in preserving and bringing together so many important moments of black history.

Black History Month was founded by Carter Woodson as Negro History Week in 1926. The month of February was selected to honor Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln both of whom were born that month. Woodson was born in New Canton, Virginia in 1875, the son of a former slave. After entering college at 20 he went on to study at Berea College in Kentucky, the University of Chicago, the Sorbonne in France and Harvard University where he earned a Ph.D. in 1912.

Dr. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915 to train black historians and to collect, preserve and publish documents on black life and black people. He also founded the “Journal of Negro History” in 1916, “Associated Publishers” in 1922 and “The Negro Bulletin” in 1937. Woodson spent his life working to educate all people about the vast contribution made by black men and women throughout history. Carter G. Woodson died April 3, 1950, and Black History Month is his best-known legacy.

Accrued over 40 years, the Clayton collection is divided into five categories; ”literary (over 30,000 titles), documents, film. music, photographs and memorabilia.

Sara “Sue” Hodson , curator of literary manuscripts for the Huntington Library in San Marino states, “ Mayme Clayton performed an absolutely vital act of generosity and foresight in collecting what she did. Mayme, herself, stated, “It’s frightening to realize that so few black people are actively involved in this task because if we’re not careful, the record of our history in this country can be permanently lost.”

Mayme Clayton was born in Van Buren, Arkansas on August 4, 1923 where she was the daughter of the town’s only black merchant (reminiscent of Maya Angelou’s upbringing). Her parents told her about the early black 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 was the genesis of her collection.

Graduating high school at 16, she moved to New York City after studying at the Lincoln University of Missouri. She was a model and photographer’s assistant and married Andrew Lee Clayton, a barber, and the couple moved to L.A. in 1946.

Earning her B.A. from Berkeley, she received a Masters of Library Science from Goddard College in Vermont and a Ph.D. from the now-closed Sierra University in Santa Monica. Beginning her career as a librarian at USC, she remained there for 15 years. In 1957 she became a law librarian at UCLA while also serving as a consultant and founding member of the Afro American Studies Center Library.

She was frustrated that the university would not buy out-of-print books by authors of the Harlem Renaissance for the new library focusing on the African American experience

Mayme was a partner in Universal Books, and when it closed and the inventory was divided, she got the 4,000 books dealing with black subjects. Thus, the core of her collection was established until it now numbers over 3.5 million pieces. She then opened Third World Ethnic Books out of her home, but she hated to part with her books.

Her son, Avery, proclaimed her “an obsessive collector, hoarder and pack rat who went to garage sales, rummage sales, flea markets, swap meets, antique stores, thrift stores, pawn shops, and if somebody died, she tried to be the first to get into their attic.” If she couldn’t afford something, she was really good at trading. “She knew what to look for. There wasn’t any junk. This is a smart collection… Mom knew what was important.”

Though the film archive is deemed unmatchable and invaluable by film historian Donald Bogle, the piece de resistance is the first book published in America by African-born Phyllis Wheatley, “Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral.” It is signed and dated 1773 when she was a slave in Boston, and it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write.

Dr. Clayton bought the book for $600 from a New York dealer. When he asked to buy it back, Dr. Clayton said, “No Way.” In 2002 the book was appraised at $30,000, and the value has definitely increased.

In the second part of this article next week the collection and its current status will be discussed in detail.


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