For 200 years of black Americana, it’s moving week

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Times Staff Writer

Movers, friends and family members wore latex gloves and hoped for no rain Monday as they packed up the lifelong project of Mayme Clayton, a librarian who had amassed one of the country’s largest collections of black Americana.

Clayton died in October at age 83, leaving behind hundreds of thousands of pieces of African American culture -- rare books, letters, posters and films -- in a cramped, shed-like storage building in the backyard of her West Adams home.

Many of her items date from before the Civil War, and experts consider her collection one of the most significant of its kind in the country.


Avery Clayton, one of Mayme’s three sons, has spearheaded the effort to move the collection to a more secure location before it is destroyed by water, humidity or bug infestation.

The collection’s new home is a former courthouse in Culver City. With its 23,000 square feet, the building is a major upgrade in space. And the price is right too: The city is subleasing the space to Clayton’s nonprofit group, the Western States Black Research and Education Center, for $1 a year. Officials hope that the site, to be called the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Cultural Center, will add to the cultural and artistic tapestry of the area, said Shelly Wolfberg, the city’s intergovernmental relations officer.

Avery Clayton said he never considered giving the collection to a university because he didn’t want it to become “a line item in the budget of another institution.” Instead, he incorporated his own nonprofit, and hopes to open the Culver City site to the public by January. Eventually, he would like the collection to grow even more, making it a repository for items like those his mother collected.

“She had a really good eye,” said Cynthia Hudley as she looked through old photographs and newspaper clippings. “She never stopped collecting.”

Hudley has known the Claytons since she was a girl; she grew up watching Mayme’s collection progress from a hobby to a formal undertaking. Now she is vice president of the nonprofit that will oversee the collection.

Avery Clayton raised $40,000 to fund the move, which is being done by movers who specialize in handling documents. Monday was the first day of the transfer, which is expected to take four or five days.


But much of the work will be done after the move, Avery Clayton said; it will take a full-time archivist years to sift through the documents and organize them.

“Her part was to assemble the collection,” he said. “I really believe my part is to bring it to the world.”

The collection is eclectic, but especially strong in Harlem Renaissance and Civil War-era books and documents. Its crown jewel 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,” written in 1773.

The collection also includes thousands of first-edition books; original records, musical scores and films; period photos of black leaders and entertainers; and books written by blacks before slavery was abolished.

“There is no other collection of the history and culture of African Americans of this magnitude and depth in the Western U.S.,” said Sara Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts for the Huntington Library in San Marino. “A lot of it is material that might not have been preserved if Mayme Clayton had not gone after it, as single-minded and devoted as she was.”

Hodson is planning a joint exhibition for 2009 that will include materials from Clayton’s collection.


Early Monday, the two-room storage building was stacked to the ceiling with a hodgepodge of papers, books and posters. But as a handful of people carefully sorted through the items and placed them in cardboard boxes, that began to change.

“I have not seen this room like this in a long time,” Avery Clayton said. “You can actually turn around.”

Julie Page, co-coordinator of the California Preservation Program of the California State Library, who helped with the move, said she was anxious to get the precious historical documents out of harm’s way. A bad rainstorm, a leaky roof or a fire could destroy irreplaceable documents, she said.

The rare books in the collection will be boxed, bagged and put in freezers for more than a week, a common practice to kill paper-eating silverfish and other insects.

Avery Clayton said that his mother, who traveled the country playing in golf tournaments, would take advantage of her trips to “comb the bookstores” in search of rare books and manuscripts. If she heard that a black newspaper was going out of business, the first thing she would do was buy its photo collection. Weekend after weekend, for more than four decades, she added to the collection behind her house.

Avery Clayton sees particular value in 19th century documents written by slaves and former slaves at a time when some of the first theories on self-improvement in the African American community were appearing.


“Most African American history is hidden,” he said. “Information just sort of died on the vine. What’s exciting about this is that we’re going to bring it back and show that black culture is rich and varied.”

Culver City officials said they were eager to put an empty building to use for a cultural institution and hoped that the future museum would draw anyone in the Los Angeles area who is interested in learning about African American culture.

Thumbing through files of photos in the Clayton backyard, Hudley found a 1926 photo of a sixth-grade class at East Galena School in Kansas. In the photo, off to one side stands the only black girl in a class of more than 20. Next to her, a white boy leans away, arms crossed.

“Look at that body language,” she said.

Avery Clayton said that he can only speculate why his mother collected the photo and what meaning she found in it. But he hopes that it, and the many other items she collected, will spawn future research projects: “Yeah, there’s a story there.”