A Triumph in a Garage

Avery Clayton With Many Black History Materials
Avery Clayton and his mother's legacy: For decades, Mayme Clayton's collection of African American historical materials has had a garage, but no home. (Carlos Puma for The Washington Post)
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Working entirely on her own, spending her librarian's salary and later her Social Security checks, Mayme Clayton amassed one of the finest collections of African American history in the world -- and stored it in her garage.

"I got to warn you, it's scary in here." This is Mayme's son, Avery Clayton, talking. He's jiggling his keys and opening the door. He reaches, finds the light switch, clicks. Inside? It is amazing .

"Originally," Avery apologizes, "there were tables and chairs, like a library, and you could sit down. But as you can see -- "

The roof sags, it may leak. There are books, floor to ceiling on shelves, but the passages between the stacks are blocked, with storage cabinets and film cases and cardboard boxes overflowing with photographs, journals, cartoons, correspondence, playbills, magazines, all dusted with a soft fungal dander. Mold.

The old garage appears held together by its peeling paint, out in an overgrown garden, behind a bungalow in a modest neighborhood. For a moment, before the eye begins to settle on the antique book spines in the gloomy light, the garage looks like a hoarder's hiding place, ready for a bulldozer and a trip to the city dump. "She was a hoarder, she was," Avery says. "But she was a hoarder with a vision."

That is the opinion of the experts, too. "She has everything," says Sue Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts at the prestigious Huntington Library east of Los Angeles. "This is probably the finest collection of African American literature, manuscripts, film and ephemera in private hands. It is just staggering. It is just superior in every way."

Hodson says that when the Mayme Clayton Collection is moved, secured, cleaned and catalogued, it will be among the top such archives in the United States, alongside the Vivian G. Harsh Collection at the Chicago Public Library and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. (The Schomburg's director, Howard Dotson, described the Clayton holdings as "major and significant" in the Los Angeles Times.)

Avery, a retired art teacher who is now the force behind preserving his mother's legacy, says this is "only a fraction of the collection." The rest of the Claytonia is scattered in storage rooms around Los Angeles and in a climate-controlled vault at a film warehouse, which protects its vast cinema archive of more than 1,700 titles and represents the largest pre-1959 black film collection in the world, including rare silent reels.

Many people may forget that alongside white cinema was its black counterpart, "race movies" seen in some 600 African American theaters and starring the likes of Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Katherine Dunham and Sammy Davis Jr. The most prolific director and producer was Oscar Micheaux, and Clayton found original prints of many of his films, including the silent movie "Body and Soul," which introduced Paul Robeson to the screen, and "The Exile," Micheaux's first talkie, made in 1931.

By the time she died in October, at age 83 of pancreatic cancer ("I've got a so-so body with a go-go mind," she said in her later years), Mayme Clayton amassed almost 30,000 rare, first-edition and out-of-print books. She was especially strong on the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, obtaining first editions and correspondence from Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston.

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