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Mayme Clayton A Champion of Black History

A Champion of Black History
Librarian Mayme Clayton, who scoured stores, attics and even dumps to amass a prized collection that she kept in her garage, has died.
By Elaine Woo, Times Staff Writer
October 21, 2006

In Los Angeles, a city known for discarding history, Mayme Clayton defied convention by collecting it.

For four decades she prowled garage sales, flea markets, attics, used-book stores, even dumps. From these waste heaps of memory, the soft-spoken librarian rescued thousands of rare and unusual books, movies, sound recordings, photographs, letters and ephemera, much of it dating to the slavery era.

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With limited funds but boundless determination, she eventually amassed what experts today regard as a valuable and eclectic collection of black Americana. Its most glorious holding is a signed copy of the first book published by an African American: ex-slave Phillis Wheatley's "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral" of 1773.

A bit of an eccentric, Clayton piled the Wheatley book and all her other treasures in the garage behind her humble West Adams home. She filled it to the rafters and prayed that the roof wouldn't leak, all the while maintaining faith that one day she would share its riches with the public in a more suitable setting.

Her dream moved an important step closer to fruition last week, when a group of local officials toured the future home of the Mayme A. Clayton Library, Museum & Cultural Center: a 21,000-square-foot former courthouse in Culver City. It is conceived as a temporary resting spot, but a crucial one, where an estimated 30,000 items can be conserved, cataloged and protected from humidity, insects and other hazards that made Clayton's garage an archivist's nightmare.

Clayton, who had pancreatic cancer, was too sick to join the tour but heard from her family that it had been a success. Early the next day, Oct. 13, she died at Centinela Hospital in Inglewood. She was 83.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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