Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Safeguarding Black History: Late Librarian's Collection Could Rival That of the Schomburg

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Safeguarding Black History: Late Librarian's Collection Could Rival That of the Schomburg

Article excerpt

Back when Harry Truman was in the White House, long before "Black History Month" became part of our lexicon, African-American librarian Mayme Agnew Clayton began waging a one-woman war to safeguard Black history.

She executed her mission one artifact at a time, and succeeded brilliantly until succumbing to pancreatic cancer last October, at age 83. A scratch golfer who had been a librarian with the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles, Clayton amassed what's believed to be the world's largest privately held collection of African-American literature and artifacts.

Threatened by mildew and silverfish, Clayton's treasure trove of more than 30,000 rare and out-of-print books by Black authors is crammed into an unremarkable Los Angeles garage. But her son, artist Avery Clayton, is working to ensure that his mother's material legacy receives the acclaim and academic scrutiny it deserves.

"I always had a desire to want to know more about my people," Mayme Clayton said in an interview posted on the History Makers Web site. "It just snowballed, it just kept going. I have invested every dime that I have, everything that I have, in books for future generations. It may change somebody's life--you can never tell."

Somewhere amongst the boxes, file cabinets and bookcases stacked to the ceiling of the garage behind Clayton's modest house is a signed copy of Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley, a 1773 publication thought to be the first book by an African-American. Avery Clayton says his overriding concern is simply extricating the collection from the garage.

Meteorologists predict that El Nino will bring unprecedented rains to Los Angeles this winter, which worries Clayton. "While the garage has held for many, many years, I'm really concerned about the safety of the collection at this point," he says.

Born in Van Buren, Ark., in 1923, Mayme Clayton moved to Los Angeles 23 years later, around the time she began amassing her archive. Fascinated by African-American educator Mary McLeod Bethune, who in 1904 founded what would become Bethune-Cookman College, Clayton began latching onto Bethune artifacts.

Clayton was a savvy and shrewd acquisitionist who earned a bachelor's degree from UC-Berkeley, a master's degree in library science from Goddard College and a doctorate from Sierra University, in Los Angeles. …

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