Mayme Clayton's black history treasures

Bill Booth, the Washington Post Style section's writer in Los Angeles, is on a roll. Last week it was the 99-tuba salute for Tommy Johnson, today's it's a nice piece on the late librarian Mayme Clayton and her astounding collection of African American literature, photos, documents and historical ephemera. Clayton's material has become more famous since her death in October, but this story puts it all together.

"I got to warn you, it's scary in here." This is Mayme's son, Avery Clayton, talking. He's jiggling his keys and opening the door. He reaches, finds the light switch, clicks. Inside? It is amazing .

"Originally," Avery apologizes, "there were tables and chairs, like a library, and you could sit down. But as you can see -- "

The roof sags, it may leak. There are books, floor to ceiling on shelves, but the passages between the stacks are blocked, with storage cabinets and film cases and cardboard boxes overflowing with photographs, journals, cartoons, correspondence, playbills, magazines, all dusted with a soft fungal dander. Mold.

The old garage appears held together by its peeling paint, out in an overgrown garden, behind a bungalow in a modest neighborhood. For a moment, before the eye begins to settle on the antique book spines in the gloomy light, the garage looks like a hoarder's hiding place, ready for a bulldozer and a trip to the city dump. "She was a hoarder, she was," Avery says. "But she was a hoarder with a vision."

That is the opinion of the experts, too. "She has everything," says Sue Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts at the prestigious Huntington Library east of Los Angeles. "This is probably the finest collection of African American literature, manuscripts, film and ephemera in private hands. It is just staggering. It is just superior in every way."

Tavis Smiley had a reporter enter Clayton's garage for an NPR story back in 2003. The material is being moved to a warehouse donated for $1 a year by Culver City and a fundraising campaign is underway to bring in $7 million for a permanent home. Noted: The LAT had a detailed obituary by Elaine Woo on the front page Oct. 21, but it's not linkable online that I could find. KCET's "Life & Times" aired a piece in 2003.


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