Clayton Library’s goal: preserving African American history
The Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum in the decommissioned Culver City courthouse has gone from being one woman’s personal mission to something of a miracle.
By Larry Harnisch, Los Angeles Times
Up the street from the old MGM lot, a tale of miracles is playing out at what was once the Culver City courthouse.
Decommissioned in 2005, the low-slung, single-story building is the home of the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum, a monument to one woman’s quest to preserve African American history — from slavery to modern times.
Clayton once said: “If we’re not careful, the record of our history in this country can be permanently lost. Right now it’s just misplaced.”
She spent years tracking it down.
The first miracle is its 2 million items — second only to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York. Those items include 25,000 magazines, 20,000 books, 17,000 photographs, 1,000 pieces of sheet music, 700 films and 300 movie posters.
The second miracle: the library’s first annual budget of $500,000, paid staff of four, about 40 volunteers and, last month, more than 500 visitors.
But numbers don’t tell the entire story. Sandra Lindsey, a volunteer who discovered the library while working on her master’s in history at Cal State L.A., says: “Don’t come through the door if you don’t want to be hooked.”
To tour the library with archivist Cara Adams and Executive Director Larry Earl Jr. is to be immersed in its stunning range of African American history, as reflected by the vault, where Phillis Wheatley’s 1773 volume of poems, the first published book by an African American, shares space with a poster for the 1970 movie “Cotton Comes to Harlem.”
“We’re always thinking, ‘How did she do this?’” Adams says of Clayton.
That too is a miracle. Born in Arkansas, Clayton came to Los Angeles in 1946, married and had three sons. After training as a librarian, she worked at UCLA but quit in frustration in the early 1970s over the lack of money for a library for its then-new Afro-American Study Center.
Switching careers, she learned the book business from a dealer in Hollywood, but they eventually parted ways and she took possession of the African American portion of the inventory. She set up Third World Ethnic Books in the garage of her Jefferson Park home.
The garage soon became a library with a handwritten card catalog and open to anyone. And the library became increasingly filled with bags upon boxes of material.
“Her friends were generally concerned about the conditions — of the roof caving in, of fire, pests — because there were boxes to the ceiling,” Adams says. “There were other institutions that were vying for it.... And so I guess she got tired of people hounding her and finally in 2002, her son Avery retired from teaching to help her full-time look for a place.”
From the beginning, Clayton was determined to keep her library independent rather than being incorporated into a larger institution. Days before she died in 2006, Avery signed a deal to rent the courthouse for $1 a year.
From then on, Avery worked overtime, meeting people and raising money. One of the people he spoke with was Earl, a founder of the Houston Museum of African American Culture and a board member of the Assn. of African American Museums.
“Avery was plagued with the problem most founding families are plagued with,” Earl says. “They have a lot of passion, a lot of desire, they have an incredible story. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts that come with administration and making it happen, sometimes that’s where they are challenged.
“So I spoke to Avery, saying I wanted to help him out. He could go and raise money, talk to as many people as he wanted to talk to and I’d be the silent shadow in the building making sure that everything was working.”
Then the library suffered its second loss. Three years after Clayton’s death, Avery had a fatal heart attack on Thanksgiving Day.
“We call it our year of institutional memory loss,” Adams says. “Because not only did he take his passwords with him, his connections with him, his meetings with people.... He took the essence. But he didn’t take the vision.”
And in one of the more devastating moments, corporate supporters reacted by withdrawing roughly $250,000 in promised donations.
But Earl stepped forward to help, first volunteering as executive director and then being hired under a grant. One of his major challenges was to operate the library on a more professional basis.
“When Avery was here, God bless him, he did stuff with a handshake and a smile,” Earl says. “If you ever met him, everybody was a friend…. When we set about to really live up to this vision to be a world-class institution, we had to do things that hadn’t ever been done before.”
This has meant conducting an inventory of all the library’s holdings, compiling its first budget and getting written agreements on donated items.
And the miracles continue. The library is in negotiations to receive the archives of L.A. disc jockey Magnificent Montague, who coined the phrase shouted during the 1965 Watts riots, “Burn, baby, burn,” and those of Dick Griffey, whose Solar records was called “the Motown of the ‘80s.”
Although it may be a mystery as to how Clayton collected so much material, there’s no question as to why.
“I’m not doing this for myself,” she once said. “It’s for the children. For generations to come. So they will have a place where they can go to study black history and point to blacks with pride…. All this will pay off one of these days. Maybe not in my generation but in one of them. Mostly everything you want to know about black people, you can find it here.”