By Ryan Mita
Local historians and librarians lost a guiding voice when Sylvia
Ann McDowell died on March 11, 2010. A touchstone for women and people of color in the Boston area, Sylvia “always seemed to know someone in the community,” says Em Claire Knowles, GSLIS assistant dean for student services and longtime friend and colleague of McDowell. In a recent profile article, the American Association of Retired People recognized McDowell’s contributions over half a century as an active member of the local black community.
McDowell was born January 6, 1935, the third daughter of Lois and Kelly McDowell. She moved from Washington, D.C., to attend Simmons College, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Library Science in 1956 and a Master’s of Library Science one year later. McDowell remained a resident of Boston for nearly 60 years.
Dedicated to higher education, McDowell was a steady presence in university libraries along the Charles River. She began as a medical librarian at Boston University and in 1965 crossed over to MIT, where she worked for 22 years.
After a stint as administrative librarian at MIT, McDowell received numerous offers, including a pivotal one at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library. She turned to her protégé, Knowles, for advice: “I take...pride that she asked me,” Knowles says. Knowles told McDowell she thought the opportunity was “fascinating...because [Sylvia] would be organizing events, collections by and about women.” McDowell remained at Schlesinger and guided the History of Women in America collection for over 12 years. In 2003, at the age of 68, McDowell left the employ of Schlesinger Library but continued volunteering in the local community. According to Knowles, no one “thought she had retired.”
A self-described quiet person, McDowell had a voice that resounded in local organizations. As a charter member of the Massachusetts Black Librarian Network, she contributed to promoting awareness of library services in the African-American community. Dedicated to the role of education, she was on the board of directors of the Roxbury Community College Foundation and was a volunteer who worked tirelessly. McDowell was a founder and later president of the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail, and served the Trail with distinction for many years.
As an active member of the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, Psi Omega Chapter, for over 50 years, McDowell contributed to “a community of African American women who have commonality of excellence in higher education and work tirelessly for the African American community as a whole,” says Knowles. The Simmons College African American Alumnae Association formally recognized her dedication to community service and granted McDowell the Crystal Stair Award.
Well into her retirement in the spring of 2009, McDowell began work as scholar-in-residence at Forest Hills Cemetery. The Boston cemetery, established in 1848, did not segregate residents nor identify them by race. McDowell wanted to create a list of black residents in the cemetery and a route map marking the graves of notable African Americans. The goal of her research was to recover the names and life stories of forgotten African Americans. The project has been warmly received; descendants of the buried have described McDowell’s research as “need to know history.” “Their voices have stories, wonderful stories,” McDowell said.
In March, McDowell’s efforts as a scholar, librarian and historian to “discover...the overlooked achievements of women and people of color” were recognized in a signed proclamation by Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino. In an official gesture, “thanking Sylvia for all she...contributed to the enrichment of Boston,” March 6, 2010, was dedicated Sylvia Ann McDowell Day. McDowell is survived by her nephews Michael Chiles, Joel Monroe, and Mark Monroe, and their families.
Photos, from top: Photo 1: Back row, l to r: Jason Wood, Julie Candiello, Donna Webber. Front row, l to r: Em Claire Knowles, Daphne Harrington, Sylvia McDowell, Pat Payne. Photo 2: Sylvia McDowell. Photo 1 & 2 taken by Jerry R. McLean. Photo 3: Sylvia’s yearbook photo.