Clayton, Mayme Agnew

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Mayme Agnew Clayton


Collector, librarian

Dr. Mayme Agnew Clayton gathered one of the largest and most significant collections of black Americana in existence. She kept much of it in the garage behind her modest home in the West Adams district of Los Angeles, California. When Clayton died in 2006 her garage was spilling over with an estimated two million artifacts of African-American history. Her collection included rare books, letters, posters, photographs, newspaper clippings, and films. Its most valuable item was the only known signed copy of the first book published by a black American—Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral—written by Phillis Wheatley in 1773. Although astoundingly eclectic, Clayton's collection was particularly strong in books and documents of the Civil-War era and the Harlem Renaissance.

In an interview for The History Makers Web site Clayton explained: "I always had a desire to want to know more about my people…. It just snowballed, it just kept going. I have invested every dime that I have, everything that I have, in books for future generations. It may change somebody's life—you can never tell." According to the Web site of the Western States Black Research and Education Center (WSBREC), Clayton collected so that "children would know that black people have done great things."

Inspired by Mary McLeod Bethune

Mayme Agnew was born on August 14, 1923, in Van Buren, Arkansas. Her father, Jerry Monique Agnew, Sr., owned a general store and was the town's only black merchant. Mayme's mother, Mary Dorothy (Knight) Agnew, was a homemaker and renowned cook. The Agnews were determined to expose Mayme and her siblings to the many accomplishments of black Americans. In 1936 Jerry Agnew took his family to Little Rock, Arkansas, to hear Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, the famous educator, speak. Mayme developed a strong interest in black literature and history and later collected Bethune artifacts.

Mayme Agnew graduated from high school at the age of 16. She briefly attended Lincoln University in Missouri. In 1944, at the age of 21, she moved to New York City where she worked as a model and photographer's assistant. Andrew Lee Clayton was a handsome soldier and a barber, 16 years older than Mayme, who returned to the studio repeatedly on the pretext of being photographed. After a ten-month courtship Agnew married Clayton in New York on January 22, 1946. The couple returned to Van Buren for a reception and then moved to California, to the West Adams bungalow. There the Claytons raised their three sons in a tradition of social responsibility and pride in black accomplishments. Mayme Clayton began collecting.

In 1952 Clayton became a librarian's assistant at the University of Southern California. In 1959 she moved to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) law library. When UCLA established its Afro-American Studies Center Library in 1969, Clayton, already known for her collection of African-American literature, was loaned out as a consultant and she began building the library's collection. However UCLA was interested in contemporary black studies and Clayton was frustrated by their refusal to purchase out-of-print books. She had become acquainted with collectors and experts in black history and she began to buy the out-of-print books herself, specializing in the authors of the Harlem Renaissance.

Her Hobby Became Her Avocation

In 1972 Clayton left UCLA and went to work at Universal Books, a used bookstore in Hollywood with a huge selection of black literature. Eventually she became co-owner. When her partner lost their profits at the horse races, Clayton agreed to take possession of his collection rather than suing him. She ran Third World Ethnic Books out of her home. Clayton also went back to school, earning her bachelor's degree in history from the University of California at Berkeley in 1974, her master's in library science from Goddard College in Vermont in 1975, and her doctorate in humanities from the now-defunct Sierra University in Santa Monica in 1983.

Every weekend for more than 40 years, Clayton combed bookstores, antique shops, garage and estate sales, flea markets, attics, and even dumps, adding to her collection. Whenever a black newspaper closed, she bought their photos. She was also a competitive golfer and the organizer and sponsor of Mayme A. Clayton Celebrity Golf Tournaments. She traveled the country and as far as Africa playing in golf tournaments and collecting.

Clayton was an aggressive and competitive collector and was famous for getting the best of any bargain. She bought the Wheatley book from a New York dealer for $600 in 1973. In 2003 it was appraised at $30,000. She bought the first issue of Ebony for a dime and refused to lend it back to the magazine's publisher. Over the years, by living modestly and selling books, Clayton spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on building her collection.

Clayton's collection grew to include some 30,000 rare, first-edition, and out-of-print books by and about blacks. She had first editions and correspondence by Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, George Washington Carver, and Zora Neale Hurston. She had plantation inventories and slave bills-of-sale. She had the complete set, 1830-1845, of the first American abolitionist journal The African Repository. She had personal letters of black leaders and entertainers. She had 75,000 photographs and 9,500 sound recordings, as well as music scores and sheet music. Her son Avery Clayton told William Booth of the Washington Post in December of 2006: "She was a hoarder, she was. But she was a hoarder with a vision."

Clayton founded the WSBREC in 1972 as the world's largest privately held collection of African-American historical materials. She served as its executive director for many years, eventually becoming its president when her son Avery took over as executive director. Alex Haley, author of Roots, served as national board chairman. For four decades Clayton ran programs through the WSBREC.

At a Glance …

Born Mayme Agnew on August 4, 1923, in Van Buren, AK; died on October 13, 2006, in Inglewood, CA; married Andrew Lee Clayton, 1946 (died 1987); children: Avery, Renai, Lloyd. Education: AR Baptist College, 1940-41; Lincoln University, 1944-46; University of Southern California, 1958-59; University of California, Berkeley, BA, history, 1974; Goddard College, MLS, 1975; Sierra University, PhD, humanities, 1983.

Career: Collector of black Americana, 1940s-2006; Doheny Library, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, assistant, 1952-57, engineering library assistant, 1956-59; University of California, Los Angeles, assistant law librarian, 1959-72, Afro-American Studies Center, 1970-71; Universal Books, Hollywood, CA, co-owner, 1971-72; Third World Ethnic Books, Los Angeles, owner, 1972; WSBREC, Los Angeles, founder, executive director, president, 1972-2006; Black History Department, Claremont College, 1973-74; Black American Cinema Society, Los Angeles, founder, executive director, 1976; BTOP Film Festival, Los Angeles, executive producer, 1977-91; Black American Odyssey video series, consultant, 1987.

Selected memberships: Afro-American Studies Center Library, UCLA, founding member; Black Cultural Entertainment Network, founder; International Black Book Dealers, organizer; Sierra University, director; Urban League.

Selected awards: Iota Phi Lambda, Woman of the Year Award, 1973, Lola M. Parker National Businesswoman Woman of the Year Award, 2005; Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Rosa Parks Award, 1990; Los Angeles Mayor's Award, 1992; Black Business Association, Pioneer Award, 2006; California State Legislature, Woman of the Year, 2006.

Founded the Black American Cinema Society

In 1975 Clayton founded the Black American Cinema Society (BACS) as the home of the Clayton Library Film Archives. It was the world's largest collection of pre-1959 black films, with more than 1,700 titles and more than 350 movie posters. Clayton had original prints of many of the films of Oscar Micheaux, the most prolific director and producer of race movies, including Body and Soul, the silent film that first brought Paul Robeson to the screen.

Clayton taught African-American Cinema at California State University. She also worked on black programming for network and cable television. In 1977 with films from her collection, Clayton launched the Black Talkies on Parade (BTOP) Film Festival at the Los Angeles Museum of Science and Industry. It was the country's first public black film festival. In conjunction with BTOP Clayton initiated the annual Black Student and Independent Filmmakers Competition. In 1993 she contributed over $50,000 in cash grants for the BACS Awards. The Mayme A. Clayton Library revived the BTOP film festivals in 2005. In 2006 it collaborated on the first annual Black and Yiddish Film Festival.

In 1999 Clayton co-founded the annual Reel Black Cowboy Film and Western Festival at the Gene Autry Museum. Clayton wanted the public to know that one out of every three cowboys of the American West was black. Avery Clayton told the Washington Post in 2006: "She bought a poster for a thousand dollars a few months before her transition and I still don't know where she got the money." It was for The Bronze Buckeroo, a black cowboy movie.

Clayton's efforts on behalf of black film made her much more than an expert on the films' subjects; she developed a deep understanding of how to preserve film. Clayton appeared in a 1999 video, Keepers of the Frame, on attempts to preserve film heritage as a record of the twentieth century. In 1995 her own collection had been moved to a climate-controlled vault in a film warehouse owned by Eastman Kodak.

Worried About the Future

Clayton had been unable to find a permanent home for her collection, where it would be available to scholars and the public alike. Portions were scattered in storage rooms around Los Angeles and her dilapidated shed was filled to the brim. There was mold. The roof could leak. Her dog provided the only security and she had no insurance. Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke recalled how years before she had expressed concern about the security of Clayton's collection, as reported in the Los Angeles Sentinel. Clayton replied, "In my neighborhood they do not steal books."

Avery Clayton left his job as an art teacher to lead the effort to move the collection. On October 12, 2006, the day before Clayton's death from pancreatic cancer, Culver City agreed to lease a 22,000-square-foot former courthouse to the WSBREC for $1 per year. Purportedly the deal enabled Mayme Clayton to die at peace.

Clayton's life was celebrated at the Agape International Spiritual Center in Culver City by more than 800 attendees. The Los Angeles Sentinel quoted actor Glen Turman remembering that she had "such a zest for life and a profound interest in many things and knew so much. Talking with her was like listening to a sage who really knew everything. She had the heartbeat of the community and it was never about her. It was always about the other person." Others recalled how in her later years Clayton became known as the "Queen of E-mail," sending out spiritual messages and bawdy jokes alike to her numerous correspondents.

Clayton Collection Moved to Temporary Home

In February of 2007 movers specialized in handling documents began transporting materials from the Clayton shed to the temporary home of the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Cultural Center in Culver City. Avery Clayton had raised $40,000 to fund the move. Universities had agreed to supply the technical staff for organizing and curating the Mayme A. Clayton Collection of African American History and Culture, composed of seven separate collections. Mayme Clayton's sons Lloyd and Renai Sr. were in charge of music and sports, respectively.

Some experts believed that Clayton's collection might rival that of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Sara Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts at the Huntington Library, who planned to include Clayton materials in a 2009 exhibition, told the Los Angeles Times in 2007: "A lot of it is material that might not have been preserved if Mayme Clayton had not gone after it, as single-minded and devoted as she was."

Although Avery Clayton hoped to open the collection to the public by 2008, as of 2007 more than $500,000 were still needed to organize and display it for a year. There were hopes that the State of California would take it over as a museum. Representatives from the Library of Congress were examining the collection. The Public Broadcasting System's History Detectives was producing a one-hour special on it. In its March 2007 issue Arts & Antiques magazine posthumously named Dr. Clayton one of the "Top 100 Collectors Who Are Making a Difference."

Avery Clayton told the Los Angeles Times in 2007: "Most African American history is hidden. Information just sort of died on the vine. What's exciting about this is that we're going to bring it back and show that black culture is rich and varied." Thanks to Mayme Clayton, the depth of African-American cultural contributions can be better appreciated, and thanks to Clayton's sons, the work she started continues.



Diverse Issues in Higher Education, January 25, 2007, p. 13.

Library Journal, November 15, 2006, p. 19.

Los Angeles Sentinel, October 26-November 2, 2006, pp. A7, A12.

Los Angeles Times, June 16, 2002, p. E1; October 21, 2006, p. A1; February 13, 2007, p. B2.

New York Times, December 14, 2006, p. A1.

Washington Post, August 1, 2000, p. 2; December 13, 2006, p. C1.


"Dr. Mayme Clayton: 40 Years of Collecting African American Works," Education Update, (June 18, 2007).

"Large Collection of Black Memorabilia Goes Public," News & Notes, (June 18, 2007).

Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum, (June 18, 2007).

"Mayme Clayton Biography," The History Makers, (June 18, 2007).