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In Praise of Mayme Clayton: Images of the African American West

Dr. Mayme Clayton was born in Arkansas and transplanted to California, where she served as law librarian at University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), beginning in 1957. In 1969 she helped put together the university’s African American Studies Center Library. But her most astounding achievement was an entirely independent one. For forty years, she collected the artifacts of African American history. She bought books and photographs, dance programs and recordings. She found these treasures in used book stores, flea markets, yard sales, and even the dump. She was a woman who knew that an object’s value–its real value–is not determined by society at large, but by our continuing need for truth. She saved what others discarded as worthless, and today we all owe her a great debt.

Dr. Clayton is one of the most visible of the heroes of black visual history, but there are others. For a long time, the institutions we depend on for the preservation of history–state archives and museums, historical societies, and other guardians of historical documents and artifacts–failed pretty miserably to do their job. Until a few decades ago, curators were almost exclusively white men who were limited in their thinking by the prejudices and ignorance of the culture they lived in. They simply didn’t value the evidences of black history in the West. And in many cases, these guardians of our collective past were influenced by racial hostility to erase or bury the truth. The result is that, as American Heritage magazine put it, “The African-American past is an iceberg, still 90 percent submerged. . . . [S]o much material remains in family hands or lies piled in the unvisited attics and basements of libraries, newspapers, and even police stations . . .”

In the past, then, the job of collecting and preserving the visual history of the black west fell into the hands of individuals of vision and commitment. Dr. Clayton was not the sole warrior in the battle to do the job of gathering and preserving. Dr. Currie Ballard, of Langston

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