The Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum and its 25,000 artifacts of African-American history face eviction from Culver City
Story by Colin Newton | Photos by Shilah Montiel
Marie Dickerson made her decision to become America’s second black female pilot in Culver City. It was at Sebastian’s Cotton Club, a Prohibition-era nightclub on the corner of Washington and National boulevards. Dickerson was on stage — Sebastian’s Cotton Club had a whites-only audience, but it featured black entertainers —and an acquaintance snuck in and urged her to replace Bessie Coleman, America’s first black female pilot, who had just died in a 1926 plane crash.
Dickerson would ultimately get her pilot’s license, although she would have
to travel to France to find a school that would train her. Upon returning to the United States, she added “the country’s only colored aviatrix” to a resume that already included singer, dancer and comedienne.
This piece of local lore — told through entertainment news clippings, flight show brochures, personal letters and Los Angeles Gas Company bills — can be found in a scrapbook at the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum in Culver City. It is just one of more than 25,000 pieces of African-American history housed there.
The collection stretches back to the late 1700s and includes a slim and crumbling first edition of the first book written by an African-American in the United States; documents of slave ownership from the 1830s, as big as a doormat and written in elegant cursive; and the first sound recording of an African-American, captured on a cylinder in 1890s by a disciple of Thomas Edison.
There is a palpable push one feels in the presence of these artifacts. It is a push given weight by time and distance and, sometimes shockingly, beauty. There’s also the push of the collection being packed into boxes and forced out of Culver City.
Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum has occupied the old Culver City Courthouse on Overland Avenue near Culver Boulevard for more than a decade. But now Los Angeles County officials under the direction of Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas (whose district includes Culver City) have directed the library to be out of the building before the end of July, said Lloyd Clayton, the library’s executive director and son of its late founder, Mayme Agnew Clayton.
“The county has stated they want to use the building for a constituency center,” Clayton said, with “constituency center” apparently referring to a place for town halls and public meetings. “If that’s the case, then why do we need to move? We offer all of that potential right here, at the Mayme Clayton.”
“It’s heartbreaking and confusing. Who would evict a library and museum of this type of importance in the African-American experience? I’m shocked,” said Culver City Mayor Meghan Sahli-Wells. “The Mayme Clayton is such an important part of our community. I’m extremely upset and dismayed that the county has moved to evict them rather than work with them.”
About six months ago, Culver City sent an official letter to Ridley-Thomas inquiring about his plans for the old courthouse. They’ve yet to get a response, “which is not only disrespectful to the current tenants,” said Sahli-Wells, “but the entire community.”
Ridley-Thomas responded to requests for comment that county officials are not yet ready to discuss the next phase of the building.
“Right now, Los Angeles County’s focus is on ensuring that the Mayme Clayton’s collection receives the help it needs to relocate this trove of African-American memorabilia to a suitable location,” he wrote. “Our attention is on the present.”
The Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum has never dwelt in the present. From its creation, it was destined to live in the past. It began as an idea Mayme Clayton had while working as a librarian at UCLA in the early 1960s, Lloyd Clayton said.
“She approached UCLA to ask them if they would be receptive to creating a budget so that she could go out and preserve rare and out-of-print Africa-American literature for the college,” he said. “They didn’t reject the idea, but they said their focus was on contemporary books. That was not the direction she wanted to go. She saw there was all this history scattered all across the United States.”
Mayme Clayton quit working at UCLA and began building the collection, using her own money to travel the country and initially obtain books and eventually photographs, legal documents, movie posters and more, all related to the history of African-Americans. Without a dedicated public building, she sorted and cataloged the items, then stored them in her garage in the West Adams neighborhood.
The garage took on some interesting pieces over the years. The gem of the collection might be its 1773 book of poetry signed by author Phillis Wheatley (described on the title page as “Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley of Boston, in New England”), which is considered the first book published by an African-American, Lloyd Clayton said. That item was simply purchased by his mother, but other items have more singular stories of acquisition.
Another prized piece is the first edition of Ebony Magazine, published in 1945. It came as part of a collection of magazines donated to the library by a household in Los Angeles. The catch: It had been raining all weekend, and the Claytons would have to pick up the magazines themselves from a leaky garage. Racing against the rain, mother and son were able to rescue most of the magazines, including the prized first issue.
“My mother would never show any excitement. She was there just to observe and collect,” Lloyd Clayton said. But the first edition of Ebony was different: “When we got home, wow, did she explode,” he said. “We have that and we keep that.”
Mayme Clayton’s garage also became a resource for people researching African-American history. Lloyd Clayton recalls one visitor who contacted his mother in the 1970s, saying he hoped to trace his family back to Africa, and wound up staying an entire month. The man and Mayme Clayton ended up having a pleasant but purely business relationship, and when he concluded his research, “they shook hands, and off he went.”
A year later, that same man started appearing on television and in newspapers promoting a book. His name was Alex Haley, and the book was “Roots.”
Haley expressed his gratitude for the library by donating an autographed first edition of “Roots.” The Jan. 16, 1977, dedication reads: “Mayme Clayton, my sister. The very warmest best wishes to you and your family from the family of Kunta Kinte!”
In 2005, with then 82-year-old Mayme Clayton’s health failing, the collection was packed up and taken to the old Culver City Courthouse, Lloyd Clayton said, a move orchestrated by his late brother Avery Clayton. He recalls representatives from the Library of Congress describing the collection — at that point still in the garage but being packed — as a national treasure. A year later, Mayme Clayton passed away and the library was given her name.
“And that’s where the collection has found its home for the last 12 years, going on 13,” Lloyd Clayton said.
Once established in Culver City, the library started giving tours, curating exhibitions and hosting live jazz performances. It has also continued to attract researchers, including amateur historian and Culver City resident John Kent.
Kent was investigating Culver City’s origin as a “sundown town,” a city that allowed non-whites to work during the day but prohibited them from staying in town after sunset, he said. During his research, Kent heard about the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum. There he connected with Lloyd Clayton.
“He steered me to some longtime Culver City residents who could help me,” Kent said.
Through connections, digging around archives and the stories he heard — memories of Culver City as a town you felt uncomfortable driving through; film directors recalling the Ku Klux Klan’s presence in the Hollywood studio system; cross burnings on properties owned by African-Americans and Jews as recently as the 1970s — Kent put together an article that he posted on Streetsblog LA.
Kent was frustrated that he discovered the library only to learn it was leaving Culver City.
“I only heard about the place in the last year,” he said. “It’s a hidden gem — or at least it was.”
There has been an effort from Culver City — both the local government and the residents — to preserve the collection’s current space, but it has had little impact on the county, Kent said.
“The city is rising to its defense,” he said. “The citizens gathered a bunch of signatures to keep it here and presented it to the [county] board, but they just ignored it.”
The library is still considering its options, Lloyd Clayton said, which include an offer by Cal State Dominguez Hills to move the collection to the campus — but that would deprive the library and museum of its independence. But unless someone in the neighborhood offers them a space to move into, they will be leaving Culver City this summer, he said.
“We should be packed by July 16, and we should be out of here on or before July 31,” he said.
Perhaps the final public event at the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum was a look at the racist history of Culver City, hosted by a panel that included John Kent. The library’s community room was packed to the walls with dozens of residents who listened to a discussion of Culver City’s past, present and future — the conversation running from former police chiefs who openly recruited for the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s to contemporary concerns about gentrification and rent control.
Panelist Jessica Cattelino, an associate professor of anthropology at UCLA, said that if property owners in Culver City were to closely examine the fine print of their property deeds, they might see restrictions on which races can live there. Although such restrictions are unenforceable, some property owners expressed that they might want the language removed. It’s possible to do so, was the response, although it would cost a certain amount of effort and time.
Not everything in the Mayme Clayton Library collection is easy to look at. Some of it reveals unhappy memories. Marie Dickerson’s scrapbook is arranged in a roughly chronological order, and eventually the newspaper clippings and glamour shots give way to bulletins from memorials and wakes.
Deeper and darker, on the same bookshelf as the autographed copy of “Roots” and the first published book by an African-American, is a fat and fading collection of pro-slavery arguments published in the 19th century, as well as a cold silver box bearing a yellow sticky note that reads “KKK robe.”
The box contains exactly what it says on the label.
Alex Haley’s novel and a Klansman’s robe may seem like strange bedfellows, but for Lloyd Clayton the reason to keep them both is obvious.
“There’s always something to learn from history,” he said.
Contact the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum at (310) 202-1647 or claytonmuseum.org.