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Preserving African-American History: The Legacy of Mayme A. Clayton

Mayme Clayton, 1973 (cropped for header)
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At just 9 years old, a little girl named Mayme Agnew walked into the library of her school in Van Buren, Arkansas, to look for something to read. The year was 1932 and the school had only a dozen students, all of whom were African-American. This was the South in the time of segregation – what we now refer to as the Jim Crow era. The library consisted of two stacks of bricks and a plank of wood. All of the books on the shelf were either written by or were about white men.

Mayme was curious. She didn’t understand why none of the books featured people who looked like her. Surely, black folks had stories too, she thought. Surely, black people were skilled and accomplished too, she thought. There was an inconsistency between what she saw – or didn’t see – in that library and what she knew. Mayme knew that her father, Jerry Agnew, was an accomplished black man. He owned a five and dime store in Van Buren, the first business owned by an African-American in the area, which was a source of great pride for the family.

She knew that if she didn’t do something to preserve her people’s history, then the accomplishments of black people might be erased forever.

Mayme recognized this absence of black history as being distinctly political. She knew that this omission was something that needed to be rectified. She knew African-Americans were skilled and talented and that they deserved to be recognized and celebrated for their contributions to society. She knew that if she didn’t do something to preserve her people’s history, then the accomplishments of black people might be erased forever.

Being in that library was a defining moment for Mayme. It was then when she realized her true calling in life, according to her youngest son, Lloyd L. Clayton.

“My mother was a very spiritual person,” says Lloyd. “She was raised Southern Baptist and because of that, she always felt that she had some higher purpose to fulfill.”

By the 1960s, Mayme Agnew Clayton had married and was living in the West Adams district of Los Angeles with her husband and three sons. While working as a university librarian, first for USC and then later for UCLA, she again recognized how little African-Americans were represented in these libraries. Mayme often requested a budget to purchase a small collection of African-American books. She was denied. Every time.

Young Mayme Clayton
Mayme A. Clayton as a young woman. Photo courtesy of Lloyd ​L. ​Clayton and the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum.

At around this time, Mayme and her husband separated. He didn’t approve of her working so much, but she knew there was something bigger calling her to do this work.

Not one to be easily discouraged, Mayme started collecting her own books. She took an early retirement from UCLA, traveled to West Africa and brought home whatever books and artifacts she could pack into her luggage. Mayme’s collection started to grow. In addition to African and African-American works, she also collected Chicano and Native American works as well.

“Every time my mother would go out, she would come home with a new book. Then two new books, then three, then a whole box,” Lloyd remembers. “I would be at home looking at the television and I would hear her pull up and honk the horn, which meant, ‘Come pick up these books!’”

In 1972, as her collection kept on growing, Mayme met the owner of Universal Books, a store located on Hollywood Boulevard directly across the street from the Pantages Theatre, where the W Hotel sits today. This man had his own collection of African-American books but his business was struggling financially. He heard about Mayme and asked her to partner with him and bring her collection into his store. Mayme invested all her retirement money from UCLA into that man’s store, having no idea that he frequented the horse tracks. In 1974, he had gambled away all the business’ money in one day. Universal Books was shut down.

Though disappointed and betrayed, Mayme drew upon her faith and remained calm. She refused to be discouraged. As a concession, her partner gave up his collection to her and she decided to run her own bookstore out of the garage of her West Adams house. That store was called Third World Ethnic Book Store.

Mayme Clayton, 1973
Mayme Clayton in 1973. Photo by Art Rogers, courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, UCLA Library. | Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Over the next few years, Mayme’s interests broadened. Her collection expanded beyond just books. She began collecting photographs, newspapers, slave documents including purchase receipts and inventory lists, films, and movie posters featuring all-black casts. As a way to bring in some extra money and support the collection’s growth, Mayme and her sons hosted monthly film screenings, which they called Black Talkies on Parade. They charged admission, and the screenings became a lucrative tradition that lasted over 20 years. Today, more than 800 films exist in the collection, all of which are currently housed at UCLA for educational and preservation purposes. The oldest film in the collection dates to 1916.

Mayme’s collection eventually became the largest private collection of African-American works in the United States.

Mayme’s collection eventually became the largest private collection of African-American works in the United States. Now more than just a book store, Mayme’s sons convinced her to change the name to the Western States Black Research Center. Its reputation started to cross borders. Requests and orders would come in from all across the world. One organization based in Berlin offered one million dollars to purchase the entire collection. Mayme declined the offer.

“Her vision was much bigger than money,” Lloyd says. “She didn’t want to sell this history away. What she wanted was for children to know what the accomplishments of African Americans were in this country, so she sacrificed her personal well-being to keep this collection alive here in the United States.”

As she got older and her health started to deteriorate, Mayme’s eldest son, Avery Clayton, spent several years campaigning for a permanent space for his mother’s collection. After 45 years, the collection had officially outgrown the garage in that West Adams house. Finally, in 2006, the Culver City council voted to allow Mayme’s collection to be housed at the former courthouse on Overland Boulevard. It would be called the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum. That same year, Mayme passed away.

Like most government buildings, the library’s home may appear cold and institutional, but the books on its shelves and the history on its walls breathe so much life into the space.

Today, a portrait of Mayme Agnew Clayton hangs on the wall of Lloyd’s office in that old Culver City courthouse. The portrait, painted by her eldest son, Avery Clayton, presents Mayme as a regal older woman with a warm and commanding presence. The gleam in her eyes and the smile on her face almost invite you in for a deep embrace.

On another wall in Lloyd’s office, there sits a pair of artistic renderings of the future Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum, also painted by Avery Clayton. The renderings feature an architecturally stunning rounded building, with water all along its perimeter. African-inspired sculptures frame the entryway. A bridge crosses over the water, connecting the entrance to the street. A few deep-pocketed investors could make Avery’s vision a reality and Mayme’s legacy, which began in that library in Arkansas at just 9 years old, would be preserved forever.

Mayme Clayton in library
Photo courtesy of Lloyd ​L. ​Clayton and the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum.

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