Celebrating Black History Month - Mayme Clayton
"If we’re not careful, the record of our history in this country can be permanently lost. Right now, it’s just misplaced.” – Mayme Clayton
Mayme Clayton was a librarian who spent much of four decades searching for and salvaging any little piece of black American history that she could find. Though she was just one person with limited resources, she ultimately managed to collect what many today regard as the most valuable and eclectic collection of black American historical documents in the world, including a handwritten letter written by Booker T. Washington and ex-slave Philllis Wheatley’s “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Mora” from 1773.
Born in Van Buren, Arkansas on August 4, 1923, Clayton grew up in a family where education and African American accomplishment was emphasized. One figure in particular, Mary McLeod Bethune, intrigued her, and Clayton’s search for books on Bethune led her to become a librarian and collector. After moving to California with her husband Andrew in 1946, she gained a job in UCLA’s law library and stayed there 15 years. In 1972 she left and became a co-owner of Universal Books before opening her own book store Third World Ethnic books. She was a specialist in buying and selling works by Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, and W.E.B. Du Bois, among others.
She soon found that she enjoyed collecting books more than selling them, founding in 1972 the nonprofit Western States Black Research Center to actively go about achieving the preservation of African American history. Through the Center – which was for the most part just her working alone – she began more actively going out into the world and collecting any piece of black history she could get her hands on. In the words of one rival, Clayton was “absolutely fearless” – she would go into any neighborhood, travel almost anywhere, even dumpster dive if she thought that it would result in her obtaining something that would help preserve black history and help children know “that black people have done great things.”
“When everyone else was asleep, she was out preserving our history.” – Bernard Kinsey
Most of the works that Clayton collected found their way into her home’s garage, piling the room to the ceiling in hopes of one day sharing her treasures with the public. Her dreams were realized through the creation of the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum, a collection of more than 3,500,000 cultural treasures of historical significance. Clayton’s legacy is one of subtle significance – without her, much of the treasures of the African American cultural legacy might have been lost to a time. But because of Clayton, the world can now see true history of black America.
Image of Mayme Clayton courtesy of the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum (MCLM)