Large Collection of Black Memorabilia Goes Public

Dr. Mayme Clayton owned one of the world's largest collections of black memorabilia. The retired librarian died recently of cancer in Southern California. Jenee Darden surveys her life and her collection's future.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Dr. Mayme Clayton was a pioneer in education and library science, and one fine collector of black history. She died recently at the age of 83, but not before building one of the world's largest collections of black artifacts. She founded the Western States Black Research and Education Center in Los Angeles. Jenee Darden has the story of Mayme Clayton and her institute.

JENEE DARDEN: When Mayme Clayton was growing up in Arkansas, her parents stressed to her the contributions of black Americans to society. So when Dr. Clayton became a librarian at the University of Southern California in 1952, she was upset to see that literature about African-Americans was scarce and neglected.

Ms. MAYME CLAYTON (Founder, Western States Black Research and Education Center): Students would come in and ask for certain books and they weren't available to them. You know, and you couldn't the locate the books, you know, in the library. They would be missing. So I started trying to buy a few books while I worked there.

DARDEN: She scoured the country for more treasures, at garage sales and bookstores and basements and dumpsters. By the time of her death, Dr. Clayton amassed more than five million recordings - films, photos, books and documents dating back to slavery. Museum consultant Robert Hanes(ph)...

Mr. ROBERT HANES (Museum Consultant): I was absolutely amazed that she had collected all of this stuff. And now you have to keep in mind now that the African-American collecting in California has been very sparse.

DARDEN: Dr. Clayton's most prized discovery was a 1773 signed book of poetry by ex-slave Phyllis Wheatley, the first African-American published. But not everyone embraced Dr. Clayton's fascination with the past.

Ms. CLAYTON: I've had people (unintelligible) say, why are you collecting all these old (unintelligible) nobody's interested in all of this.

DARDEN: Even her three sons were a bit skeptical at first.

Ms. CLAYTON: Yeah. That's what my son used to son use to - oh no, not another book. Here she comes with another book.

DARDEN: Today her eldest Avery is president of the collection. He says he and his brothers had a change of heart once they matured.

Mr. AVERY CLAYTON (Collection President): There really is something about that saying that as you get older your parents get smarter.

DARDEN: But the priceless materials are stored in Dr. Clayton's tiny garage behind her South Los Angeles home.

Ms. CLAYTON: I just wanted to put it in a place where all types of people can use the collection and benefit from it. Because I think it's going to benefit the whole world.

DARDEN: In 2001, her son Avery quit teaching to raise awareness and funds for building a world-class center that'll preserve the materials at a time when major collections of black Americana had been destroyed. Avery says saving this collection is critical.

Mr. CLAYTON: The collection is in danger and it's threatened by fire and water and pests and mold. We lost three major collections during Hurricane Katrina. We lost the collections of Dillard, Tulane and Xavier University. You know, for us to lose another major collection, you know, what does that say about us?

DARDEN: Congresswoman Diane Watson has a personal bond to the collection. Watson grew up in the Clayton's neighborhood and visited Dr. Clayton when she was a teen.

Representative DIANE WATSON (Democrat, California): That garage could not have been any larger than 17 by 18. But it had collections in there that would cover this globe.

DARDEN: Dr. Clayton's dream of housing the collection began to bloom right before her death. A former courthouse in Culver City, California was designated the Mayme A. Clayton Library, Museum and Cultural Center. It will open next year. Congresswoman Watson helped obtain the new location and $150,000 in federal money for the new center. She also plans to contribute a few pieces of her family history.

Rep. WATSON: I have the trunk that my great-great-grandmother was sold off of into slavery. I have a doll that she made by hand, a black doll. She had a 400-year-old bible, and it must've been a Gutenberg, so we are searching for that. But I want them located in this research center.

DARDEN: The Claytons still need to raise nearly $7 million, but the youngest son Lloyd says they're not daunted.

Mr. LLOYD CLAYTON (Son): There's not a long haul. It's going to be a very exciting step to see all of this get created.

DARDEN: The brothers hosted a successful tour of the new facility last month. Dr. Clayton was too sick to attend. She died of cancer less than a day later. But some say her message to all cultures will live on.

Ms. CLAYTON: Unless you know where you've been, you really don't know where you're going. You know, you have to know where you're going to find out where you've been.

DARDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jenee Darden in Los Angeles.

CHIDEYA: The Clayton brothers aim to move their mother's collection out of the garage before the end of this year.

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