Thursday, July 23, 2009

Huntington exhibit to explore the Harlem Renaissance

“Central Avenue and Beyond: The Harlem Renaissance in Los Angeles”
displays materials from the Mayme A. Clayton collection for the first time.

On view in the Library West Hall Oct. 24, 2009–Jan. 4, 2010
Press Preview: Friday, Oct. 23, 2009, 10 a.m.–noon

Promotional print for the film Harlem on the Prairie (1937),
directed by Sam Newfield and Jed Buell, and starring Herb Jeffries.
Mayme A. Clayton Library.

African American arts and culture exploded in early 20th century America, and the Harlem neighborhood of New York City was Ground Zero. Not as well known is what played out in Los Angeles at the same time— a flowering of African American arts, literature, and culture along Central Avenue. A new exhibition at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens explores the Harlem Renaissance in Los Angeles, drawing on materials from The Huntington as well as items from the Mayme A. Clayton Library, which never before have been on public display. The exhibition, “Central Avenue and Beyond: The Harlem Renaissance in Los Angeles,” is on view Oct. 29, 2009–Jan. 4, 2010, in the Library West Hall at The Huntington.

“People tend to think the Harlem Renaissance took place in one spot,” says Sara “Sue” Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts at The Huntington and co-curator of the exhibition. “In fact, a number of urban centers were teeming with cultural activity, Los Angeles chief among them. Central Avenue was at the heart of it all, a jazz mecca, and more—much more. Classical music, ballet, theater, literature—it’s all there in a vibrant history that tells a rich tale of L.A. history.”

Among the more than 50 items exhibited are original manuscripts by poet Langston Hughes; photographs from the First Negro Classic Ballet, founded in Los Angeles in 1946; and rare editions of California-based African American periodicals such as the California Eagle and Flash magazine. Also featured are movie posters for black Hollywood films— such as The Exile, written and directed by Oscar Micheaux, and The Bronze Venus, starring Lena Horne; photos of jazz clubs from the period; and correspondence from W. E. B. DuBois and L.A. composer William Grant Still, among others.
The exhibition includes groups of items on writer, journalist, and civil rights attorney Loren Miller and his wife, Juanita, a founder of the League of Allied Arts, and on entertainer and aviator Marie Dickerson Coker, who was one of the first African American women to gain a pilot’s license.

“African Americans in Los Angeles were making unprecedented strides across a number of fields during this period—in literature and music, art and aviation,” said Hodson. “And, locally, Central Avenue is the place most closely associated with this movement.”

The exhibition highlights the extensive collection of the Mayme A. Clayton Library, located in Culver City, Calif., but not yet open to the public, and contains what is considered among the world’s largest independently held collections of rare African American books, manuscripts, posters, photographs, films, and other materials documenting the African American experience. It was assembled by the late Mayme A. Clayton, longtime librarian at USC and UCLA. Before Clayton died in 2006, her son Avery began organizing the collection for scholarly use and display. Avery Clayton co-curates the exhibition.

“My mother had a voracious appetite when it came to collecting African American materials,” he said. “And it has paid off. We can present an exhibition on a topic such as this because we have a treasure trove of material to choose from.”

“And a story to tell,” added Hodson. “Los Angeles was quite a hot spot. The Lincoln Theatre was the leading west coast venue for African American performing arts. The clubs along Central Avenue hopped all night long with the music of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. And ‘everybody’ stayed at the Dunbar Hotel, including Billie Holliday and Langston Hughes.”

Central Avenue occupies a north-south artery that stretches from the Los Angeles Civic Center through Watts and Compton to the area in Carson now occupied by California State University, Dominguez Hills. From the 1930s through the ’40s, the area was “the hub, a focal point for black culture,” says Clayton. “And it didn’t hurt that the emerging film and recording industry provided a draw.”

African Americans came west looking for a fresh start as part of the Great Migration—when, in the early 20th century, more than a million blacks left the South in search of a better life. In Los Angeles, they settled along Central Avenue, in part because it was one area of the city in which blacks were permitted to live and own businesses.

“Of course, when we look back, the notion that blacks were restricted to a particular area is fundamentally offensive, and foreign to so many of us who didn’t experience it,” said Clayton. “The silver lining is this—it concentrated the intellectual and artistic juices of some of the key figures of this period. And it led to a legacy of cultural richness. Central Avenue tells a very special story.”

About the Mayme A. Clayton Library
Founded in Los Angeles by Mayme Agnew Clayton (1923–2006), the Mayme A. Clayton collection contains the largest independently held collection of rare and out-of-print books, documents, films, music, photographs, and memorabilia on the history and culture of Americans of African descent. It includes more than 30,000 volumes, with the earliest book published in 1773, and is rich in children’s literature and materials relating to the pre–Civil War period, sports, blacks in the American West, and black Hollywood.
The film archive traces African American contributions to the motion picture industry from 1916 to the present and includes films and movie posters. The sheet music and record library as well as the photograph and memorabilia collections span the mid 19th century to the present.
Efforts are currently under way to catalog the collections and make them publicly accessible with a new library and museum building. For more information, visit

Related Programs
A slate of programming is presented in conjunction with the exhibition. Events are free, and no reservations required, unless otherwise noted. Please visit for event updates.

Oct. 28, (Wed.), 7:30 p.m. – Lecture “Black Angelenos: Roots and Renaissance” by Judith Narcisse, Pan-African Studies Department, California State University, Los Angeles. Friends’ Hall.

Nov. 12, (Thurs.), 7:30 p.m. – Lecture “Clarence Muse: Central Avenue and Beyond” by independent scholar Renita Lorden. Friends’ Hall.

Nov. 23, (Mon.), 7:30 p.m. – Music by Harold Bruce Forsyth performed by soprano Elizabeth Tatum, baritone Conrade Immel, and pianist Philip Smith. Friends’ Hall.

Dec. 9, (Wed.), 7:30– Screening of the film Lying Lips, written and directed by Oscar Micheaux, 1939. Friends’ Hall.

About The Huntington
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens is a collections-based research and educational institution serving scholars and the general public. More information about The Huntington can be found online at

Visitor Information:
The Huntington is open to the public Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday from noon to 4:30 p.m., and Saturday, Sunday, and Monday holidays from 10:30 to 4:30 p.m. Closed Tuesdays and major holidays.
Admission on weekdays: $15 adults, $12 seniors (65+), $10 students (ages 12 – 18 or with full-time student I.D.), $6 youth (ages 5 – 11), free for children under 5. Group rate $11 per person for groups of 15 or more. Members are admitted free.
Admission on weekends and Monday holidays: $20 adults, $15 seniors, $10 students, $6 youth, free for children under 5. Group rate $14 per person for groups of 15 or more. Members are admitted free.
Admission is free to all visitors on the first Thursday of each month with advanced tickets.
For more information, call: (626) 405-2100 or go to

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