Mayme Clayton Collection Finds a Home
|Objects from the Clayton collection: at top, Phillis Wheatley's Poems (1773), Blair Stapp's Huey Newton, Black Panther Minister of Defense (1968); William Cowper's The Negro's Complaint (1788)|
The Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum has agreed to transfer its 2 million-piece collection of African Americana to Cal State University, Dominguez Hills. Assembled by Clayton on a librarian's salary, the trove has been rated the most important of its kind outside of New York's Schomburg Center. The Clayton collection includes first editions, letters, photographs, films, sound recordings, artworks, and pop culture ephemera. It is considered especially strong in early black film.
Clayton worked for USC and UCLA. Her suggestion that UCLA's library begin collecting African American material drew crickets. Clayton recognized that future historians would value the sort of objects that black families of her generation were throwing out. She began frequenting swap meets and building her own collection. At one garage sale Clayton bought first issue of Ebony magazine for 10 cents. Years later the magazine's founder John H. Johnson tried to buy her copy (he hadn't thought to save one). Clayton said no.
Johnson: "Do you think I could borrow it?" Clayton: "No, I don't think so."
Perhaps Clayton's greatest single acquisition was a signed copy of Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), the first book published by an African American. Clayton bought it from a New York dealer for $600. Though the book itself is not exceedingly rare, neither the Schomburg's nor the Huntington's copies are signed.
Shortly before Clayton's 2006 death, her family struck a deal to establish the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum in a former courthouse in Culver City. This was considered a launch pad for the family's vision of a hilltop 40,000-square-foot site with gardens and performances. Funding for that scheme never materialized, and the Culver City lease was canceled in 2019. The neighboring Wende Museum floated a plan to keep the Clayton collection in Culver City, and West L.A. College stored the collection after eviction. Talks between Clayton's sons and CSU Dominguez Hills were reportedly at an impasse over the family's desire to have a distinct building with Mayme A. Clayton's name on it. That is apparently not part of the new deal, which will incorporate the collection into CSUDH's Gerth Archives and Special Collections.
It's good news that the Clayton now has a real home, one committed to access. But this is a world-class collection that has landed at (let's face it) a lesser-known institution that doesn't draw many visitors from outside the university community. That might considered a rebuke to the city's bigger, whiter institutions that are now seeking this very sort of material. In any case, the Gerth Archives has a small exhibition program, frequently looking at social justice themes from a historical perspective.
The Clayton-CSU alliance bolsters Los Angeles' institutional holdings of Black American material, much of which has been assembled in just the past few years. The Getty Research Institute's African American Art History Initiative, announced in Sep. 2018, has acquired the archives of Betty Saar and, jointly with USC, architect Paul R. Williams (June 2020); the GRI and Smithsonian have begun cataloging and conserving the Ebony magazine archive (July 2019); and George Lucas' museum-to-be acquired a major collection of early Black cinema this past January.