Friends and relatives of Avery Clayton plan to remember him Saturday. Clayton was the custodian of one of the country’s major black history archives. Clayton died suddenly during a Thanksgiving family gathering.
Avery Clayton inherited a vast collection of African American artifacts from his mother, Mayme Clayton, who died three years ago. He also inherited his mother’s relationship with the material.
“It was her personal passion, and something that she got a lot of joy from," he told KPCC in February of 2008. "It made her happy to assemble this stuff.”
That “stuff” included hundreds of old black-cast Hollywood films, first edition of books by Frederick Douglass and Langston Hughes, and the only known signed copy of the slave Phillis Wheatley’s volume of poetry, published in 1773. A University librarian, Mayme Clayton stored it all in her garage.
“As a librarian, she understood that this kind of stuff was meant to be shared," Avery Clayton said. "She saved it from being destroyed so that it could be shared.”
Sharing it became Avery Clayton’s mission. He found a home for the collection in an unused courthouse in Culver City, and worked out a deal to lease the space for a dollar a year. Then, he set out to raise the millions of dollars that would transform the place into the Mayme Clayton Library and Museum.
Early in 2008, Clayton invited supporters to tour the facility and hear about his vision. He wanted to preserve the old courtroom for re-enactments of different cases in African American History for school children. He took his guests into the adjacent jail cell and announced, “we’re gonna have a life-size hologram of Martin Luther King reading the letter from the Birmingham jail.” The visitors oohed and ahhed.
Scholars regard the Clayton collection on a par with those of the Vivian G. Harsh Collection at the Chicago Public Library and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library.
"Because it’s such a significant collection," said Clayton, "it needs to be shared."
Avery Clayton was 62 years old when he died.
Memorial Services for Clayton begin at 10 a.m. Saturday at Agape International Spiritual Center in Culver City.