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UCLA

Well-Preserved: How Mayme Clayton Saved America's Black Past

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By Norma Meyer

Published Apr 1, 2010 10:00 AM


Retired UCLA Librarian Mayme Clayton once explained that her hobby "just snowballed." That's putting it mildly. Over 40 years, the obsessive collector combed flea markets, rummage sales, thrift shops and used-book stores, spending her own money to corral a mind-boggling 3.5 million items chronicling African-American culture.

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Included in the collection is sheet music from African-American artists like On Revival Day songwriter Andy Razaf and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (below). Images courtesy of the Clayton Library and Museum.

A visionary as well as a pack rat, Clayton kept most of her finds — from pre-Civil War slave sale receipts to handwritten correspondence from educator Booker T. Washington — in a crammed-to-the-rafters converted garage behind her modest South Los Angeles home. When she died in 2006 at age 83, what is now believed to be the world's largest privately held collection of black Americana was stashed in her garage and storage units around town.

"She wanted to share it with people. As she said, 'You can't know where you're going unless you know where you've been,' " recalls Cynthia Hudley Ph.D. '91, interim executive director of the still-in-development Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum in Culver City. The museum plans a soft opening late this year, as fundraising continues.

Clayton's one-woman mission to preserve the oft-forgotten past began while she was a UCLA law library assistant, a job she held through the turbulent '60s. During that time, she helped establish the university's Center for African American Studies Library.

Her haul is humongous: 30,000 rare books, including the only known signed copy of a 1773 poetry volume by slave Phillis Wheatley, the first book published by an American of African descent; 75,000 photos from the mid-1800s on; 9,500 sound recordings; and umpteen manuscripts, magazines and mementos. Hundreds of black-cast movies, dating back to the silent era, are housed at UCLA's Film & Television Archive.

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"We never know what we're going to find," says Cara Adams '07, among a handful of UCLA library science grad students cataloging pieces of history. Mammy dolls are piled in one box; headlines about Rodney King in another. Adams passes a museum corridor lined with vintage movie posters — one touts Stepin Fetchit's 1949 short, "I Ain't Gonna Open That Door." In a storeroom, she points out a tattered scrapbook bulging with yellowed clippings about Dorothy Dandridge, the first African American nominated for a best actress Oscar in 1954.

None of the trove would be seeing daylight if it weren't for Clayton's son, Avery, a former teacher who attended UCLA in the '70s. After his mother died, he had her life's work packed up, deep-frozen to kill bugs and inhibit mold, and moved to its current address, a defunct Culver City courthouse he leased for $1 a year. In the defendants' old jail cell, he envisioned projecting Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" onto the wall. The museum plans historical reenactments of the incarceration of King and others in the jails.

Sadly, Avery suffered a fatal heart attack last Thanksgiving at age 62. But museum backers remain determined that his mother's amazing garage cache — the 1867 slave songbook, the original jazz recordings by Duke Ellington, and so much more — will one day be publicly displayed, just as both of them dreamed.

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