Celebrating Mayme A. Clayton's Legacy
March 7, 2019
"You can't really know where you are going until you know where you have been."
That quote has been attributed to Maya Angelou and others, and it encapsulates the passionate commitment motivating the remarkable woman for whom the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum (MCLM) is named.
Black History Month, which takes place in February, became a nationwide celebration in 1976 with President Gerald Ford's recognition during the observance of the United States Bicentennial. Dr. Clayton's legacy, MCLM, is an ongoing treasure honoring Black history.
And Culver City is fortunate to be its repository, with MCLM bearing the distinction of housing and preserving the historical records of African Americans through films, photos, ephemera, and scholarly and creative works, a collection of over 2.5 million items, the largest of its kind on the West Coast and possibly the largest privately owned collection in the world.
So who was the late Dr. Clayton, and what motivated her to embark upon this incredible odyssey?
Born in 1923, she grew up in Van Buren, Arkansas, her mother an acclaimed cook and her father the owner and operator of a general store, the only business in town then owned by an African American. Since her parents were determined to expose their children to African Americans of high repute and accomplishment, when she was only nine years old she attended an event where she heard a stirring speech by Mary McLeod Bethune, renowned educator, activist, social visionary and daughter of former slaves.
That pivotal moment sparked a lifelong desire for learning and a commitment to social responsibility within the child, causing her to direct her energy into scholarly pursuits.
After beginning her higher education at Lincoln University of Missouri, she received her BA at the University of California, Berkeley. She then moved to New York, where she met and married Andrew Lee Clayton. They later moved to Los Angeles, where he pursued business interests and she continued her education and started her career, a career commencing at USC in 1952 where she remained until 1957. She then became a Law Librarian at UCLA, where she was instrumental in establishing the African American Study Center Library.
But she ran into what many would have considered an insurmountable snag.
She requested a budget to purchase rare and out-of-print books by and about African Americans as part of her effort to support the newly established study center. The university declined, responding that they were only interested in purchasing contemporary books.
Undaunted and aware of how critically important it was to collect and preserve such historically significant material, she funded her collection out of her own resources.
Her education continued, and she earned her MLS at the Goddard College of Vermont, later receiving her PhD in Humanities from La Sierra University. During this same period Dr. Clayton, a determined and very capable multitasker, established the Western States Black Research Center, Third World Ethnic Books, and the Black American Cinema Society, funding these endeavors by hosting golf tournaments, awards ceremonies, and film screenings known as the Black Talkies on Parade.
These efforts continued for several decades, including the sharing of her collection which had been housed in the garage of her home in the West Adams area of Los Angeles for 40 years, and which she made accessible to scholars, researchers, students and anyone who was interested. It attracted many well-known individuals, including Langston Hughes and Alex Haley, both of whom conducted research for their acclaimed works in that very garage.
Dr. Clayton believed and often said that she wanted to preserve this history "so that young children would know what African Americans have contributed," but by 2002 part of the collection had suffered damage due to inadequate storage and lack of proper environmental controls. This resulted in less public access to the materials, which were in danger of being ruined.
Her eldest son, Avery Clayton, proceeded to build the organizational framework that eventually led to the establishment of MCLM. Shortly before Dr. Clayton passed away on October 13, 2006, it was announced that the new home for the collection would be the former Los Angeles County Superior Courthouse in Culver City. In keeping with Dr. Clayton's wishes, her collection was bequeathed to Western States Black Research Center. In 2007 the name was changed to the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum in honor of her contributions and legacy.
Sadly, Avery Clayton, the founding Executive Director, died in 2009.
Lloyd Clayton, the youngest of Dr. Clayton's three children, is presently Executive Director of MCLM, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization that supports programming such as the monthly Black Talkies on Parade, hosts regular jazz events, and partners with organizations including the Black Association of Documentarians and California African American Genealogical Society for regular meetings. MCLM also partners with the local school district and the Congressional Representatives office for an annual art competition. And, as a vital component of Culver City's cultural community, on November 9, 2018 MCLM joined forces with the Culver City Historical Society Archives & Resource Center and The Wende Museum of the Cold War to present free tours that day as the kick-off event for the Culver City Cultural Corridor.
MCLM Board Director Steven Fisher, who graciously assisted with information for this article, commented that "those represented in the museum who have fought for rights and equality in the face of fierce opposition, many paying the ultimate price with their lives, have laid down the groundwork on which we all stand today. We need the MCLM and what it provides more than ever."
Mary McLeod Bethune, who inspired Dr. Clayton all those years ago, was quoted as saying, "World peace and brotherhood are based on a common understanding of the contributions and cultures of all races and creeds."
MCLM is certainly doing its part to broaden that understanding by collecting, preserving, exhibiting and celebrating the unique history and cultural heritage of African Americans, educating audiences about their genius, creativity and resilience, and using the collection as an instrument of friendship and healing, bringing people together through interconnected cultural heritage.
Great things happen when children like that little girl in Arkansas are inspired to dream.