Thursday, February 4, 2016

February is African American History Month - Dr. Mayme Agnew Clayton

   In April of 1992 Los Angeles erupted in explosions, fires, gunshots, and more as a result of the Rodney King verdict.  I was standing outside at my school in south Los Angeles talking with our custodian as the helicopters began to fly over.  Little did I realize then that the police were basically going to let the city self-destruct and do nothing to stop it.  Surprisingly this time - as I had experienced the Watts eruption in 1965 and was working at the exact same school at the time - the violence went as far north as my neighborhood Echo Park.  As I turned left off Sunset Blvd. to go home, and onto Echo Park Ave. I was met with gunfire. Luckily I could escape.  But a beautiful bookstore - the Aquarius  - at King Boulevard and Western Avenue went up in flames and destroyed what was one of the best collections of African American literature and memorabilia in Los Angeles.

"When I was just a teen-ager it was one of the few places where you could have access to black literature in Southern California," said Wanda Coleman, a black writer. "It was more than a bookstore; it was a community center. It was one place you could meet and talk and not feel you were being intruded on by interlopers from the dominant culture."    A fundraiser we held later at USC wasn't going to bring back the great loss of important works.
   At least ten years later imagine my thrill when I read about the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum that houses one of the best collections of African American history and culture.  "The collection contains over two million rare books, films, documents, photographs, artifacts, and works of art related to the history and culture of African Americans in the United States, with a special focus on Southern California and the American West. The collection is one of the most important collections chronicling the history and culture of Americans of African descent in the United States of America."     Who was Dr. Mayme Clayton and why hadn't I heard about her before?

   Fortunately she was a librarian, archivist, collector, and historian and she developed the collection over 40 years working independently.  Professionally she was a law librarian at UCLA and asked UCLA at one point to help fund the collection.  When they wouldn't, she retired and became a full time collector.  She called the library the Western States Black Research Center (WSBRC).  Here's a short video of Mrs. Clayton's son Avery describing his mother and her work.   This is simply remarkable and should be shared all over the country, in my opinion.  Forty-five years of collecting produced over 30,000 books and artifacts and much more for this fabulous collection.   Mrs. Clayton kept this collection in her home. Luckily a permanent place was found to house it once Mrs. Clayton saw the need to permanently store it for future generations.  The crown jewel of the collection is a book by Phyllis Wheatley published in 1773!!

   The collection includes 30,000 rare and out of print books, manuscripts and archives including papers of Booker T. Washington among others, film and recorded sound archives, photographs and prints, art and artifacts by artists such as Betye Saar, Jacob Lawrence, and Avery Clayton.  Here's the way an online reference guide to African American History praised Dr. Mayme Clayton:   "Dr. Mayme Clayton was born in Arkansas and transplanted to California, where she served as law librarian at University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), beginning in 1957. In 1969 she helped put together the university’s African American Studies Center Library. But her most astounding achievement was an entirely independent one. For forty years, she collected the artifacts of African American history. She bought books and photographs, dance programs and recordings. She found these treasures in used book stores, flea markets, yard sales, and even the dump. She was a woman who knew that an object’s value–its real value–is not determined by society at large, but by our continuing need for truth. She saved what others discarded as worthless, and today we all owe her a great debt." - See more at:   
   The library and museum are located at 4130 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA.   Lloyd Clayton is now in charge of the library and can be phoned or emailed for an appointment.

Lovely blog about a visit to the MCML - 
A miracle of Black history - 
Facebook page - 
In praise of Mayme Clayton -
The library and museum's website -    
The history makers - 
More information about her -    


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