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.
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.
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.
“Most people in the community regarded her as eccentric, which she was,” Shaw added. “I don’t think she got the cooperation and the respect she deserved, simply because she was doing something that no one else was doing.... She was a Class A historian, and what she was doing was protecting the legacy” of African Americans.
Born Aug. 4, 1923, Clayton caught the collecting bug as a child in Van Buren, Ark. The daughter of the town’s only black merchant, she grew up with an awareness 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. Clayton’s search for books on Bethune led her to become a librarian and eventually a collector.
After studying briefly at Lincoln University of Missouri, Clayton moved to New York City, where she found a job in a photography studio. She met her future husband, Andrew Lee Clayton, when he came in to have his picture taken. They were married in 1946 and moved to California, where they began to raise a family.
In addition to Avery, Clayton is survived by two other sons, Renai and Lloyd; two grandsons; and four great-grandchildren.
Working in Libraries
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, where she stayed 15 years.
She told The Times in a 1973 interview that she tried to persuade UCLA to invest in out-of-print works by such authors as Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar for the Afro-American studies library it was developing, but found the response discouraging.
So in 1972 she left to became co-owner of Universal Books, a used-book store in Hollywood. 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. She specialized in buying and selling works by Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois, among other noted black authors.
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.
Eventually, Clayton found that she enjoyed collecting books more than selling them.
In 1972, she founded the nonprofit Western States Black Research Center to promote the preservation of African American history.
During the next four decades, the center -- basically a one-woman operation -- mounted various programs, including film festivals that showcased her extensive holdings of black talkies and black westerns.
Her archive, which features 1,700 films dating to the early silent era, includes a special collection of works by prolific director Oscar Micheaux, whose three-decade career began in 1919, when he became the first African American to make a feature film. Among Clayton’s Micheaux holdings is an original copy of his 1925 masterpiece, “Body and Soul,” which featured Paul Robeson in his screen debut.
Film historian Donald Bogle, an author and expert on black Hollywood who has conducted research in Clayton’s film library, has called her collection “unmatchable and invaluable.”
Clayton was an aggressive collector who could be cold to rivals. Shaw, who collected black Hollywood memorabilia and books, said Clayton “could be really spitfire when she thought we were in competition.... She would travel anywhere to get the most minute item or to fill in volumes of things. I know Mayme would go into dumps; she would go into any neighborhood. She was absolutely fearless.”
Clayton was driven by the knowledge that black people’s history was being tossed out with the garbage every day. She often explained that her mission was to preserve the history so “children could know that black people have done great things.”
“It’s frightening to realize that so few black people are actively involved in this task,” she told The Times in 1973, “because if we’re not careful, the record of our history in this country can be permanently lost. Right now, it’s just misplaced.”
Garage Sale Treasure
She was rummaging through boxes at a garage sale when she came upon Vol. 1, No. 1 of Ebony, one of the oldest and most successful black magazines, first issued in November 1945. “She asked the lady, ‘How much you want for this old magazine?’ ” Avery Clayton recalled. “She said, ‘Oh, you can have it for a dime.’ ” Clayton happily paid the price.
Years later, Ebony founder John H. Johnson tried to obtain her copy -- he hadn’t kept one for himself -- but his request fell on deaf ears. According to Avery Clayton, “He said, ‘Do you think I could borrow it?’ She said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ ”
As her reputation grew, Clayton found more material through tips from other collectors and dealers. She learned of the Wheatley book, for instance, from a New York dealer representing the owner, who urgently needed cash.
“I remember that they wanted $600 for it and that my mom had to save the money to get it,” Avery Clayton said. She was, he added, “pretty matter-of-fact about most of her purchases” but was overjoyed by the Wheatley book, which was written when it was illegal for blacks to read or write.
Other collectors and institutions, including the Schomburg and the Huntington, have copies of the Wheatley book but, unlike Clayton’s, theirs are unsigned.
‘Like ... the Holy Grail’
“When I first picked up the Phillis Wheatley book she had, it blew me away. It’s like holding the Holy Grail,” recalled Bernard Kinsey, a noted Los Angeles collector of African American art and artifacts, who later obtained a Wheatley of his own.
Clayton, he said, “had all the books of all the great black writers -- autographed. Which is really amazing when you think about it.
“She developed the eye to spot those items that would one day be sought after. When everyone else was asleep, she was out preserving our history.”
Clayton’s funeral will be held at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Agape International Spiritual Center, 5700 Buckingham Parkway, Culver City.