The mission of the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum (MCLM), according to its website, is “to collect, preserve, exhibit and celebrate the unique history and cultural heritage of Americans of African descent.” It was founded by Dr. Mayme Clayton in 1972 as the Western States Black Research and Education Center (WSBREC). Its purpose, according to her interview on the documentary series, The History Makers, was that “…children would know that Black people have done great things.”
The WSBREC, which contained the largest private collection of African-American historical materials in the world, was renamed in 2007 the “Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum” (MCLM) in her honor. The vision of the library and museum is “to serve as a world-class cultural institution dedicated to educating audiences about the legacy of African and African-American creativity, genius and resilience. To this end, MCLM seeks to facilitate an ongoing discussion about the diversity of the American experience and to use its collection as an instrument of friendship and healing, bringing people together through interconnected cultural heritage.”
The collection of Mayme Clayton is considered, according to UCLA Magazine, to be “one of the most important collections of African-American materials and consists of 3.5 million items”. It includes more than 75,000 photographs, almost 10,000 sound recordings and 30,000 out-of-print, rare and first edition books by and about Blacks, including works of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. Its most valuable piece is the only known signed copy of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Composed by Phillis Wheatley in 1773, it is the first book of poetry published by an African American woman in the United States.
The Clayton Collection at the Culver City Courthouse contained more than 25,000 pieces of African-American culture. Her private collection, which rivals the public collection of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, is exceptional because of its extraordinary amount of depth and range. It has been profiled on PBS’ History Detectives and according to Lloyd Clayton, the executive director of the MCLM and son of Mayme Clayton, The Library of Congress referenced the collection of Mayme A. Clayton as a national treasure.
The Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum has drawn great admiration from collectors, historians and scholars. In the New York Times article, “Black History Trove, a Life’s Work, Seeks Museum”, written by Jennifer Steinhauer, Patricia A. Turner remarks about the vital work Mayme Clayton undertook. A professor of African-American studies at the University of California, Davis, Turner proclaimed, “The dispersion of important African-American cultural materials has long vexed researchers. The older materials have always been collected out of a labor of love by someone who had the foresight to realize that researchers would find it valuable … (it) will be very important for the scholarly community.”
In 2005, the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum revived the Black Talkies on Parade (BTOP) film festivals. This film festival was created in 1977 by Mayme Clayton and it was the first public Black film festival in the United States. Originally held at the Los Angeles Museum of Science and Industry, the BTOP featured films from Clayton’s collection. In 2006, the MCLM collaborated to produce the first annual Black and Yiddish Film Festival. The museum and library offered educational outreach and community programming, including providing tours (by appointment), presenting exhibitions and hosting live jazz performances.
The collections have been divided into five areas of interest: manuscripts and archives; rare books; film and recorded sounds; photographs and prints; and art and artifacts. According to the library and museum’s website:
- Manuscripts and Archives Collection
“The Manuscripts and Archives Collection is comprised of personal papers, records of organizations and institutions, literary and scholarly typescripts and manuscripts, broadsides, programs, playbills and other ephemera. Featured items include the personal correspondence of noted 20th century African Americans such as Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, Josephine Baker and Pearl Bailey. Periodicals include Jet, Sepia and Ebony magazine and a complete set of The African Repository and Colonial Journal, a quarterly publication of the American Colonization Society, first printed in 1825. Other documents in the collection include pre-Civil War travel passes for slaves, slave bills of sale and plantation inventories
- Rare Books Collection
MCLM’s Rare Books Collection contains more than 30, 000 rare and out-of-print books written by or about African Americans. The collection contains over 300 signed first edition books, including a rare, signed, first-edition copy of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), the first book of poetry published by an American female author of African descent.
- Film and Recorded Sound Archives
The Film and Recorded Sound Archives houses a broad array of rare moving images, films and recorded sound documenting the history and culture of African Americans. The film archive contains over 700 film titles from 1916 in 16mm, 35mm, VHS and DVD formats. Rich in pre-1959 Black films, MCLM’s Film and Recorded Sound archives features rare silent reels and films by Oscar Micheaux, considered America’s preeminent early independent African-American filmmaker. Sound recordings of jazz, early Negro Spirituals, gospel, ragtime, bebop, classical and rhythm & blues dating back to the turn of the 20th century are preserved within the archives. Rare sheet music dating back to the mid-1800s and signed musical scores by Fats Waller, W.C. Handy, Duke Ellington, and other noted African-American composers are housed within the Recorded Sound Archive.
- Photographs and Prints Collection
The Photographs and Prints Collection contains photographic images and works on paper, chronicling the history and culture of African Americans. The collection dates from the mid-1800s and is composed of fine art prints and reproduction posters, lithographs, engravings and drawings. Images of slavery, the Civil War, the modern civil Rights Movement, African Americans in the performing and visual arts, organizations (fraternal, social and political), religion, military, urban street scenes, churches, housing and businesses are represented within the collection. The collection also features the works of noted African-American photographers including James Van Der Zee, Gordon Parks, Joe Flowers and Jack Davis.
- Art and Artifacts
MCLM’s Art and Artifacts Collection houses art and material culture artifacts. The collection includes fine and applied art, with an emphasis on modern and contemporary works by African Americans and artist of the Africa Diaspora. The collection is comprised of paintings, works on paper, sculpture, textiles and assemblage by renowned artists including Richard Mayhew, Betye Saar, Jacob Lawrence and Avery Clayton. Material culture artifacts within the collection include a wide range of two and three-dimensional items such as dolls, stamps, commemorative coins and buttons, depicting civil rights themes, political campaigns, slogans, organizations and much more. Collected artifacts span from the 19th century to the present.”
Having been located at 4130 Overland Avenue in Culver City, California, MCLM administration, scholars, collectors and other supporters are actively seeking to find a permanent home for this extensive collection. In early 2019, the MCLM received an order at the Culver City Courthouse where they had been functioning for almost thirteen years. The letter from the officials of Los Angeles County, under the direction of Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, issued that the Black history library and museum must vacate the premises by the end of July 2019. The reason for this, according to Lloyd Clayton, was that the courthouse has been slated to be used as a constituency center. In the 2019 “The Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum and Its 25,000 Artifacts of African-American History Face Eviction from Culver City” article, authored by Colin Newton for The Argonaut, Clayton relayed, “The county has stated they want to use the building for a constituency center,” with ‘constituency center’ apparently referring to a place for town halls and public meetings. If that’s the case, then why do we need to move? We offer all of that potential right here, at the Mayme Clayton.”
Despite letters, petitions, telephone calls and other forms of communication, Ridley-Thomas and the county officials were practically noncommunicative, only stating that they are concerned that the MCLM be moved elsewhere, as they are focused with the present, not the past.
In The Argonaut article, Newton reported the shock of many, including of the mayor of Culver City, Meghan Sahli-Wells. In it, she lamented, “It’s heartbreaking and confusing. Who would evict a library and museum of this type of importance in the African-American experience? I’m shocked … the Mayme Clayton is such an important part of our community. I’m extremely upset and dismayed that the county has moved to evict them rather than work with them.”
It is with great and sincere hope that the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum will find a permanent home that best suits the items in this extensive collection; engages the public in learning about the diverse aspects of Black life and the countless accomplishments of persons of African descent in the United States; and honors the mission and vision of Dr. Mayme A. Clayton!