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Reflections on Mayme Clayton’s Collection of Afro-American Materials: The Finest In Private Hands

December 18, 2006

Mayme Clayton, a retired librarian that lived in Los Angeles, used her relatively meager monetary resources to put together one of the best collections of African American memorabilia. The hitch? A lot of it is stored in her garage. Clayton’s son has gone through some of it, removing the pieces to appropriate archives, but much remains to be sifted. Below are some excerpts from a Washington Post story on the collection. The article’s author is William Booth, and it’s titled “A Triumph in a Garage” (which might lead those with motorcycle knowledge in a totally different direction).

Although I love “find stories” like this, I’m not posting it for the fun and excitement of discovery. In discussing Clayton’s collection, the article touches on the variety of sources – archives, books, films, etc. – important to researchers of African American history.


– “‘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] . . . among the top such archives in the United States, alongside the Vivian G. Harsh Collection at the Chicago Public Library and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. (The Schomburg’s director, Howard Dotson, described the Clayton holdings as “major and significant” in the Los Angeles Times.) Avery [Clayton, Mayme’s son], a retired art teacher who is now the force behind preserving his mother’s legacy, says this [in the garage] is “only a fraction of the collection.” The rest of the Claytonia is scattered in storage rooms around Los Angeles and in a climate-controlled vault at a film warehouse, which protects its vast cinema archive of more than 1,700 titles and represents the largest pre-1959 black film collection in the world, including rare silent reels.”
– “Many people may forget that alongside white cinema was its black counterpart, ‘race movies’ seen in some 600 African American theaters and starring the likes of Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Katherine Dunham and Sammy Davis Jr. The most prolific director and producer was Oscar Micheaux, and Clayton found original prints of many of his films, including the silent movie Body and Soul, which introduced Paul Robeson to the screen, and The Exile, Micheaux’s first talkie, made in 1931.”
– “Mayme Clayton amassed almost 30,000 rare, first-edition and out-of-print books. She was especially strong on the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, obtaining first editions and correspondence from Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. Her trove includes the first book published in America by an author of African descent, Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral, dated 1773, when she was a slave in Boston. Clayton has the only known copy signed by the author; she paid $600 for it in 1972, far more than she usually spent. Her collecting style was more bargain basement than Sotheby’s auction. She’d prowl used bookstores, flea markets, estate sales. When old people died, she’d get into their attics. In the garage, it still feels like a treasure hunt. There are the first issues of Ebony magazine (She picked up Vol. 1, No. 1, for a dime). A book about Denzel Washington next to The Negro in Tennessee: 1865 to 1880. There’s a How to Box manual by Joe Louis lying on a box of Jim Crow cartoons with the label “Negro Jokes” beneath the original movie poster for Porgy and Bess.”
– Clayton “possessed a complete set of the first abolitionist journal in America, The African Repository, dated 1830 to 1845. Among the manuscripts, there is an emphasis on paper that predates the Civil War: travel passes and bills of sale for slaves, and plantation inventories.
– “In an interview with NPR, Mayme Clayton said, ‘Unless you know where you’ve been, you really don’t know where you’re going.'”

Please do check out the article. There’s more in it about Clayton herself, how she collected, and the logistics of saving her pieces.


As a Chicagoan, I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know about the Vivian G. Harsh Collection (of Afro-American History and Literature) housed at the Chicago Public Libraries. My graduate school and dissertation research involved little African-American history, but I can’t believe my ignorance. As the first black librarian in Chicago’s Library system, Harsh began amassing resources – for the Library – in 1932. The Harsh Collection is housed today at CPL’s Carter G. Woodson Regional Library. Here’s an excerpt on the content and magnitude of the Harsh collection (from the website):

“The largest African American history and literature collection in the Midwest, the Harsh Collection contains a wealth of precious documentation of the Black experience. The strength of the collection is concentrated in African American history in Illinois. Special bibliographies have been prepared to assist researchers with many topics. Its holdings include:
– 70,000 books, many of them rare
– 500 periodical titles, current and retrospective
– 75 microfilm research collections, totaling over 5000 reels, bringing together the most significant primary source materials from other Black Studies research collections across the country.”

Here are a few of the Harsh’s manuscript holdings:

– Black Radical Congress Archive;
– Go on Girl! Book Club Archives;
– Heritage Press Archives;
– Hughes, Langston Papers; and the
– Illinois Writers Project/”Negro in Illinois” Papers.

And these were just the few holdings that struck me as significant. There are several manuscript collections for individuals about whom I know nothing.

I wonder how many other collections like – or unlike – Clayton’s are out there. As an historian, I know the urge. While working on my dissertation about the great books and Mortimer Adler, the temptation to accumulate was there. I would warrant that every historian fights this; it’s a hazard of the trade. As an historian, you know that some of the things you run across are valuable. But who can afford the storage?

As a last aside, I liked Clayton’s philosophy of history: “Unless you know where you’ve been, you really don’t know where you’re going.” It’s simple, but more personal than other general statements, such as those related to “avoiding the mistakes of the past.” Perhaps her philosophy will resonate with students in my future survey courses. – TL


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One Comment
  1. DLighte permalink

    Thank you for this enlightening post.


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