Saturday, February 16, 2008

Holding on to History

Avery Clayton is in a race against timeoand mold, and silverfish, those insects that have a taste for paper. The former art teacher is determined to protect treasures of African-American culture from neglect and destruction. "Unless there's an organized, concerted effort to gather this material, it will be gone in 50 years," Clayton told TIME FOR KIDS.

Clayton says that there is a rich trove of artwork, literature and other valuable pieces of black history sitting in people's basements and attics. He knows this from personal experience: He has peered into dank cellars and crumbling garages. His mother, Mayme Agnew Clayton, collected rare and important items from African-American culture. Her riches include handwritten slave documents, first-person slave narratives, early photographs, black-cowboy films, autographed first-edition books by African-American authors and personal letters by black leaders and artists. By the time of her death, in 2006, she had filled her garage, a film warehouse and two storage units near her home, in Los Angeles, California, with astounding artifacts.

On Display
Soon the private collections of Mayme Clayton and others will have a grand home in a former courthouse in Culver City, California. Her son convinced the city to rent the building to him for $1 a year. In December 2007, he received a federal grant of $250,000 to renovate the old courthouse.

Avery Clayton has a lot of support. The Library of Congress plans to display parts of the collection on its website. Last November, a professor and college interns began to catalog and organize the collection. And architecture students from Howard University are helping to design a multistory addition for the museum. The 23,470-square-foot courthouse just isn't big enough.

Historians say that without people like Mrs. Clayton, large portions of black culture would be lost forever. Lonnie Bunch is the founding director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is set to open in Washington, D.C., in 2015. Bunch told TFK that for years, "Many museums didn't think African-American collections were as valuable as others. That's why private collectors are so important."

A Rich Heritage
The Smithsonian has turned to homegrown historians to help preserve African-American artifacts. In January, it held the first of several events led by conservation experts. About 200 people gathered at the Chicago Public Library, in Illinois, where they learned how to safely handle and store everything from clothing and textiles to books and letters. Some of these items may end up at the Smithsonian museum. But Bunch also urges individuals to donate to local libraries and smaller museums (see "Black History in Your Backyard"). "Every time a collection is lost, we lose a piece of who we are," he says. "These aren't just old papers."

Avery Clayton's collection continues to grow, as people come forward with their own significant cultural specimens. He hopes to open the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum in 2009. He would like to turn one of the rooms into a public library, and others into a screening room and a theater. In yet another, there's a jail cell in which he plans to project a life-size hologram of Martin Luther King Jr. reading his famous letter from jail in Birmingham, Alabama.

More than anything, Clayton wants to provide young people with information about lesser-known African Americans who made great contributions to society. He says the museum will provide schools with free teaching tools.

Clayton envisions the museum as a place where people of all ages and backgrounds can learn and celebrate what it means to be an American. "For the most part, African-American culture is defined in the media as either slavery or civil rights, crime or hip-hop music," Clayton says. "But it's so much more than that."

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