A massive collection of books, films, and documents; photos; pieces of our past that were well hidden, are among thousands of artifacts devoted to America’s Black history and found in the garage of Mayme Agnew Clayton (1923–2006) just after her death. Her son, Avery Clayton, worked to create “a museum and research institute that would bring this collection out of the garage and into public view,” according to the New York Times.
A retired librarian, Clayton spent most of her adult life consumed with African-American history. The artifacts, pulled from the garage behind Clayton’s residence in the West Adams district of Los Angeles, her home since the late forties.
According to the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum website, “The garage was set up as a library for local adults and children, with tables and chairs, bookshelves, and a card catalog. By 2002, however, many of the materials suffered damage due to inadequate storage and lack of proper environmental controls.”
About the collection, Sara S. Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts for the Huntington Library in San Marino, told the New York Times: “There is no doubt that this is one of the most important collections in the United States for African-American materials… It is a tremendous resource for all Americans, but especially African-Americans, whose history has largely been neglected.”
Clayton’s collection began with her work as a librarian at the University of Southern California and subsequently the University of California, Los Angeles. She had been instrumental in the group that founded the Afro-American Studies Center Library (UCLA). After 15 years at UCLA, she worked for Universal Books in Hollywood until it went out of business. Before leaving, Clayton took on every book related to Black culture. This amounted to more than 4,000 volumes.
The collection represents the core holdings of the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum. The museum, located in Culver City, Calif., is known to boast the largest and most academically substantial independently held collection of objects, documents, and memorabilia on African-American history and culture.
Born in Van Buren, Ark., Clayton graduated high school at age 16. She later earned her bachelor of arts from the University of California, Berkeley; a masters in Library Science from Goddard College, Vermont, and doctorate in humanities from Sierra University, Los Angeles.
Clayton collected more than 30,000 rare and out-of-print books over the course of 45 years. This collection is considered “one of the most important for African-American materials and consists of 3.5 million items,” according to UCLA Magazine.
“The centerpiece of the collection that grew this way is a signed copy of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, from 1773. First published by an American of African descent, the book was acquired for $600 from a New York dealer in 1973. In 2002 it was appraised at $30,000,” the New York Times reported.
Clayton passed away in 2006, just hours after a press conference announcing the establishment of the Culver City home for her collection.