Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Women You Should Know - Dr. Mayme Clayton by Zoe Blaq

Women You Should Know:
Dr. Mayme Clayton 
by Zoe Blaq

During my undergraduate studies at California State University Northridge, I took a Pan African studies class given by fascinating Professor Johnny Scott, who grew up in Watts and graduated from Harvard.

The day Professor Scott introduced me to Dr. Mayme Clayton, I was instantly consumed by the presence of a woman who would become my mentor, friend and inspiration. I was drawn to her passion for literature and film.

Dr. Mayme Agnew Clayton gathered one of the largest and most significant collections of black Americana in existence. She kept her collection in the garage behind her home in the West Adams district of Los Angeles, California.

We exchanged numbers after class and a week later I was volunteering in her home and had the pleasure of helping her preserve and organize books and posters in a damp and mildewed garage. I will never forget the smell of old books that permeated the air. It smelled like heaven.

We often sat and talked like old friends although we were generations apart. I was in my early twenties and she was in her seventies. I will never forget the spark in her eyes as she carefully sat her most valuable item in front of me which was the first book published by a black American in 1773 - a signed copy of Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. I remember the time she shared a handwritten and signed first edition of works by Zora Neale Hurston and correspondence from George Washington Carver. I was in the midst of greatness. Dr. Mayme Clayton was not only a collector, she was a visionary who dedicated her life to preserving Black history for Black people.

Mayme Agnew was born on August 14, 1923, in Van Buren, Arkansas. She graduated high school at the age of sixteen. She received a Bachelor of Art Degree from the University of California, Berkeley; a Master's Degree in Library Science from Goddard College, Vermont, and Doctorate in Humanities from Sierra University, Los Angeles.

In the late 1940's She moved to California to the West Adams bungalow where she started collecting.

By 1957, her collection grew from her work as a librarian, first at the University of Southern California and later at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she began to build an African-American collection. She started by collecting out of print books. In the 1960's, Mayme was part of the group that founded the Afro-American Studies Center Library, which is still in existence at the school today. After working 15 fifteen years at UCLA, she took a position at Universal Books in Hollywood, CaCA. When Universal Books went out of business, she managed to grab all of the books that pertained to Black society and culture – more than 4,000 volumes.

Clayton founded the Western State Research Foundation in 1972 as the world's largest privately held collection of African-American historical materials. Alex Haley, author of Roots, served as national board chairman.

Clayton was the founder of the Black American Cinema Society, which awards scholarships and hosts film festivals. In my observation, Dr. Clayton was very well respected in Hollywood, and distinguished celebrities always showed up at her events. She was a strong woman who taught me a level of focus, determination and delivery I continue to strive for. Even today, her spirit continues to encourage me to follow my dreams as a storyteller and historian. In 1999, Clayton co-founded the annual Reel Black Cowboy Film and Western Festival at the Gene Autry Museum.

Mayme Clayton and I would sit at her dining room table and have deep belly laugh conversations until we cried. We could talk for hours over the phone. Time was seamless, age was spirit and our relatedness was bond. I went to graduate school and we lost touch with the hustle and bustle of life. Although short short-lived, our paths crossed and our three three-year meeting left a huge impact in my life.

When Clayton died in 2006, her garage held an estimated two million artifacts of African-American history. Her collection included rare books, letters, posters, photographs, newspaper clippings, and films. Her contribution to archiving will always be a valuable resource for books and documents of the Civil- War era and the Harlem Renaissance. Dr. Clayton’s library is a gem for all fFilmmakers and writers.

We draw strength and inspiration from those who came before us including those remarkable women working among us today. The dreams and accomplishments of women are part of our story. An inclusive history recognizes how important women have always been in American society and culture.

Dr. Mayme Clayton simply desired to know about her people and give children pride. She is definitely a woman we should know representing the West side. May her work continue to thrive in the altruistic heart and soul of all people.

Visit the museum in Culver City, CA


Zoe Blaq, MA was Raised in Europe and speaks German. She is A former mental health therapist from Antioch University and also has a film degree from CSUN.

Blaq is a published writer and a holistic health advocate who aims to reconnect people with their indigenous root.

Editor's Note:  Wow - I'm so grateful to Zoe for introducing me to Dr. Mayme Clayton! What a wonderful woman! You can find additional posts in the Women You Should Know series in the blog archives  from March 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015.  If you are interested in being a guest blogger on the Zestyverse, let us know!

No comments: