Garage sales are for treasures. Museums are for the ages. Mayme Clayton spent a lifetime scouring one so her son could build the other.
When it’s finished, curators say the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum of African American History & Culture will rival New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in size and significance.
Avery Clayton, 56, is still cataloging the hundreds of thousands of things his mom collected, but is working with the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino on a joint project and the Clayton’s first major exhibition is scheduled Oct. 24 to Jan. 4.
“Her role was to collect and acquire and his role was to create a house for it,” said Sara “Sue” Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts for the Huntington. She is one of Clayton’s biggest boosters and has spent many Saturdays cataloging with him and his group of volunteers.
Clayton started the project long before his mom died in 2006 of pancreatic cancer at 83.
She spent most of her career as a librarian at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1969, she helped establish the African-American Studies Center Library at UCLA.
“She was an obsessive collector, hoarder and pack rat. She went to garage sales, rummage sales, flea markets, swap meets, antique stores, thrift stores, pawn shops and if somebody died, she tried to be first to get into their attic,” Clayton said.
If she didn’t have money, she would arrange a trade.
“She knew what to look for. There wasn’t any junk. This is a smart collection. A lot of people would collect anything that was black. Mom knew what was important.”
She kept a card catalog of many of her purchases, including where she found them and how much she paid.
Born in Van Buren, Ark., in 1923, Ms. Clayton graduated from high school at 16, moved to New York where she was a model and photographer’s assistant and met her husband, barber Andrew Lee Clayton. In 1946, they moved to a small house in Los Angeles. There would eventually be three sons and a divorce, but through it all there would be the collection.
Except for her music and films, everything was stuffed in a dilapidated garage next to the house or in storage units around town.
Clayton packed up 680 boxes of memorabilia from the garage, had them frozen to decontaminate pests and stop mold growth, then used an alcohol rub on leftover mold.
Days before his mom died, Clayton signed a $1-a-year lease on an old courthouse about 10 miles west of downtown Los Angeles. The city agreed to lease the 23,000-square-foot building for the future benefit the museum promised.
Clayton started cataloging the 30,000 rare and out-of-print books because they took up the most room. A quarter of them have been processed.
One of the most treasured is the first book published in America by African-born Phillis Wheatley, “Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral.” It is signed and dated 1773, when she was a slave in Boston.
Hodson said a few years after Ms. Clayton bought it for $600 from a New York dealer, he asked to buy it back. “She said, ‘No way.'”
In 2002, the book was appraised at $30,000, Clayton said, and “it’s definitely gone up.”
Ms. Clayton built the largest black film collection in the world, with 1,700 titles dating back to 1916. It is housed at the UCLA School of Film and Television. Those films will stay at UCLA, Clayton said, because it would cost too much to move and store them. In exchange, the university is doing any restoration work needed.
His mom never traded away anything she wished she hadn’t, “but I know there were things she wanted and never got.” One of those was the 1919 silent movie “Homesteader,” the first from black director Oscar Micheaux.
Lloyd, the youngest Clayton son, is putting together the music collection from more than 9,500 sound recordings. Those recordings, which include the earliest from Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith, will be moved to the library in coming months. Brother Renai is handling the sports memorabilia.
About 1970, Ms. Clayton invested in a bookstore, but the owner squandered their profits on the horses, so she agreed to take the collection of black history books rather than take him to court, Clayton said. She got 4,000 books out of the deal.
She stashed away more than 75,000 photographs and scores of movie posters, playbills, programs, documents and manuscripts.
In 1972, she formed the original, non-profit Western States Black Research Center, which officially became the library in 2008, Clayton said.
Clayton’s goal is to open the museum in 2011. “I am encouraging him not to open too soon. Once you open, you have all new demands,” Hodson said.
Clayton said he needs $8.5 million for the museum’s first three years. He has raised about an eighth of that, he said.
One box Clayton recently opened contained the first book of Negro spirituals in the United States. It was dated 1867, two years after the Civil War.
There are a number of slave documents, including a plantation inventory from Jamaica in the West Indies written in 1790.
There were 408 slaves on the plantation and documents listed them by occupation, including cooks, drivers, watchmen, field workers, a barrel maker and a blacksmith. The largest group listed 62 women who were kept for breeding.
Every day, Clayton said, the scope of what his mother did leaves him in awe. “She did this. She saved our history.”
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Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.