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African American History Collection Lives On After Deaths of Founder and Son

Work to continue on Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum and its priceless trove of black artifacts

Artist Avery Clayton was on a mission to catalog and display approximately 30,000 rare and out-of-print black-themed books that his mother, Mayme, had painstakingly amassed before her death in 2006.

Clayton rescued the artifacts from a garage behind his mom’s Los Angeles home, and established the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum in Culver City, Calif., to restore and show the literary treasure trove.

However, his dream came to an abrupt end last Thanksgiving after Clayton died at age 62 of what the Los Angeles Times called a heart attack. A lifelong friend, Cynthia Hudley, who is a professor of child and adolescent development at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has assumed Clayton’s role as the museum’s interim executive director.

“I’ve lost my dearest friend of 50 years—there’s no replacing him,” says Hudley, 62. “He was a very special person, very giving, very enthusiastic.” Clayton had jokingly told Hudley that he wanted her to succeed him, should he die unexpectedly.

“We kind of discussed it, but it was never really serious,” Hudley says. “It was one of those, ‘Well, you know if I get hit by a bus, I’m going to be counting on you!’ ”

Among the books held by the library is a signed copy of Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley. The 1773 tome is thought to be the first book published by an African American.

A love for black culture

In August 2009, Avery Clayton poses by a portrait of his mother, Mayme Clayton, who over her lifetime amassed a treasure trove of African American literature and artifacts.

Mayme Clayton was a scratch golfer who had been a librarian with the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles. In her 20s, she started putting together what is believed to be the world’s largest privately held collection of African American literature and artifacts.

The collection also includes 75,000 photographs; tens of thousands of manuscripts, documents and pieces of correspondence; 9,500 sound recordings—including the earliest from Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith—and a 1,700-title collection of 16 mm films.

Hudley says the work has continued apace, and approximately 25 percent of the institution’s books have been cataloged. In February, the library’s board plans to conduct a search for a permanent executive director.

Until that happens, Hudley will continue embracing her late friend’s labor of love.

Forging ahead

“Fundraising is probably our biggest challenge right now, because Avery was iconic when it comes to this institution,” says Hudley, who’s seeking to double the annual operating budget of $250,000. “But in terms of our day-to-day operations, things are moving along pretty much the way that they were before.”

After Mayme Clayton’s death four years ago from pancreatic cancer, Avery Clayton spearheaded an effort to get his mother’s collection into a secure building where it could be displayed. His death, which occurred as he hosted a Thanksgiving Day gathering at his Culver City home, stunned the library’s staff as well as members of the Los Angeles community, according to communications director Evelyn Davis.

“There were hundreds of people at his memorial service,” says Davis, 66. “But because of his hard work, and the hard work of his mother, things have to go on. There’s no question about it.”

Blair S. Walker is a writer in Miami.

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