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