Wednesday, December 13, 2006

OT: Important collection of African American materials

This isn't an update, but it is significant.

From the New York Times:

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 13 — Behind the dusty stools and the old towels, under the broken telephones and the picture frames, amid the spider webs, sits one of the country’s most important collections of artifacts devoted to the history of African-Americans.

An early-19th-century edition of "The Negro’s Complaint" is among the collection’s thousands of rare books.

Painstakingly collected over a lifetime by Mayme Agnew Clayton — a retired university librarian who died in October at 83 and whose interest in African-American history consumed her for most of her adult life — the massive collection of books, films, documents and other precious pieces of America’s past has remained essentially hidden for decades, most of it piled from floor to ceiling in a ramshackle garage behind Ms. Clayton’s home in the West Adams district of Los Angeles.

Only now is her son Avery Clayton close to forming a museum and research institute that would bring her collection out of the garage and into public view. Just days before Ms. Clayton died, he rented a former courthouse in nearby Culver City for $1 a year to become the treasures’ home, leaving him to scrape together $565,000 to move the thousands of items and put them on display for the first year.

“There is no doubt that this is one of the most important collections in the United States for African-American materials,” said Sara S. Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts for the Huntington Library in San Marino, one of the country’s largest collections of rare books and manuscripts. “It is a tremendous resource for all Americans, but especially African-Americans, whose history has largely been neglected.”

There are first editions by Langston Hughes and nearly every other writer from the Harlem Renaissance, many of them signed; a rare biography of the architect Paul R. Williams; and the oeuvre of the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.

There is an edition of “The Negro’s Complaint,” a poem complete with hand-painted illustrations; books by and about every notable American of African descent from George Washington Carver to Bill Cosby; and thousands more items concerning those whose names were lost or never known.

The roughly 30,000 rare and out-of-print books written by and about blacks in Ms. Clayton’s collection have never been fully archived.

There is also what Mr. Clayton calls the world’s largest collection of 16-mm films made by blacks; 75,000 photographs; 9,500 sound recordings; and tens of thousands of documents, manuscripts and correspondence: a treasure trove that Ms. Clayton assembled piece by piece, on her modest salary, scouring used bookstores, garage sales, antique shops and pretty much any place where she could find books and memorabilia related to the African-American experience.

The premier collection devoted to black literature and artifacts is the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Other major collections include the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History at the Chicago Public Library, and those of Howard University, Temple University and the University of Arkansas.

Ms. Clayton’s collection is distinguished by its breadth and depth of materials, scholars say, including the films, the handwritten slave documents and the staggering assortment of ephemera, and is unmatched on the West Coast. “A collection like this is, in my mind, priceless,” said Philip J. Merrill, an expert on African-American memorabilia.

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