A great museum could be hiding in your closet

Most of the significant collections of African-American heritage started in someone’s house. The Mayme Clayton Library and Museum holdings consumed her home in Los Angeles for decades until her son Avery Clayton acquired a former county courthouse in Culver City to begin the work of cataloging and displaying the massive treasure trove.
Both Mrs. Clayton and Avery passed in recent years, but the collection is on a firm footing for the future.
Likewise, the Schomburg Center for African-American Heritage in Harlem was the personal collection of Arthur Schomburg, before he donated it to the New York Public Library.
One of the highlights of my first full-time job as a national correspondent for the AFRO-AMERICAN Newspapers was writing an investigative piece that helped lead to the construction of a permanent home for the Schomburg Collection.
Over and over again, I am astounded by the amazing artifacts, books, photos, videos, posters and newspapers which are lying dormant in the cracks and crevices of homes.
Practically every black family I know holds family photos and church records dear, but there is a group of people who are consumed with finding out everything they can about black history.
The Kinsey Collection, which will draw 3 million through the end of its run at the Smithsonian Institution Museum of American History, is the result of such a passion.
But I suspect every black community has a similar self-appointed archivist whose holdings are the living memory of a people.
During our seven week series Come to the Water: Teaching California Black History, one of our objectives is to identify and help preserve such artifacts among the rapidly aging stock of black property owners in the San Francisco.
Several times in the past few weeks, someone has asked about how to deal with the historical artifacts of a person who passed. That is both a traumatic and daunting challenge for their loved ones.
However, there is another more pressing threat — the wave of foreclosures concentrated in San Francisco’s black neighborhoods. In these cases, valuable items can just be abandoned.
One of San Francisco’s greatest heroes, Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett, owned a building on Turk Street that housed his medical office and newspaper The Sun Reporter.
But when he passed, the building was abandoned. Sun Reporter reporter Max Millard alerted Amy Holloway, then the librarian for the S.F. African-American Historical and Cultural Society, and me that the paper’s morgue was still in the building.
One night, the three of us went into the building, then being occupied by squatters, and carried out garbage bag after garbage bag of pictures and records, even including the hat and prescription book off Dr. Goodlett’s desk. Now there are 34 cartons in the Goodlett collection at the society’s archive.
This Saturday during Come to the Water at 1 p.m. in the Nia Room on the second floor of 762 Fulton St., right between the Society’s archive and library, and for the next three Saturdays, we’ll discuss how to identify, catalog and preserve these legacies of black progress. The antidote to the myth of absence is literally in our own closets.
The Come to the Water schedule to follow is:
Fifth session covering the period from 1951 to 1971 and a special tribute to black physicians and dentists in San Francisco history at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 19 at the historic Sam Jordan’s, 4004 Third St.
Sixth session covering the period from 1971 to 1991 at southeast campus, City College of San Francisco, 1800 Oakdale, room 413 at 1 p.m.
Seventh session covering the period from 1991 to the present, San Francisco African-American Chamber of Commerce offices at Webster and Golden Gate at 1 p.m. on Saturday, March 5, which is observed in California as Black American Day in honor of the death of Crispus Attucks in the Boston Massacre.