Jumping on jets, trudging through snow, gamboling among dirty, dusty crates in abandoned warehouses, a 68-year-old grandmother with a mission in mind makes her appointed rounds for the Library of Congress.
Since 1973, Sylvia Render, the Library of Congress' specialist in Afro-American history and culture, has gone to out-of-the-way places to dicker with, nudge or cajole reluctant heirs and skeptical individuals into giving private papers to her manuscript division.
"A large quantity of our collection of Afro-American papers can be directly attributed to her," said John C. Broderick, the assistant librarian for Research Services at the Library of Congress. "She has also been responsible for reminding the library of its own heritage."
"She brings passion to her work," said Asuncion Lavrin, an associate professor at Howard University. "I wouldn't have known about many things as topics for my students if it hadn't been for her."
Through persistence, Render acquired the personal papers of civil rights leader Roy Wilkins, the records of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the papers, charters and documents of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. But she has also given much time to running down materials dealing with the contributions of Washingtonians to black culture.
"Washington has long been a hub of cultural, political and educational activity among blacks -- even before the Civil War," Render said. "It's been a natural gathering place for blacks because there were more opportunities here."
Render's efforts to separate and examine the parts of black culture led her one snowy day to the Northwest home of Ann Weaver Teabeau, the great-grandaughter of Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, diplomat and writer. Teabeau was wary of parting with personal letters that Douglass had written to the family while he was a runaway slave and while in exile in England and Scotland.
After two exploratory telephone calls, Render arranged a meeting and she and Teabeau talked at length. "Southern gentility ruled the day," recalled the Atlanta-born Render. She succeeded where others had failed. The Douglass letters now belong to history, archived in the Library of Congress.
On another occasion, outfitted in slacks and a pullover sweater, she attacked boxloads of materials in an abandoned classroom used as a storage area at the Nannie Helen Burroughs School in Northeast. On her hands and knees, surrounded by lawnmowers, ladders and rags, she fished through crammed, dusty boxes until she found the documents she needed to complete the library's collection on the noted Washington educator. Said Render, tongue-in-cheek: "It was not the kind of thing one expects a professional to do."
Her department's follow-up and hustle resulted in the discovery and acquisition of documents showing that the father of another Washington educator, Francis L. Cardozo, served as secretary of state and treasurer of South Carolina during Reconstruction, "without a single finger of criticism being pointed his way while in office," Render said. Personal letters of Cardozo, for whom the Northwest high school was named, may also be found at the library.
Render's unorthodox style has resulted in key materials being made available to scholars, researchers, writers and students from all over the world.
Render received her doctorate in English Literature in 1959 at the George Peabody College in Nashville when she was a 46-year-old divorcee with a child. After years of sporadic schooling, the Depression, and a series of jobs that included clerical work, being a civil servant and newspaper reporter, she had attained her "life-long dream" of becoming a college history professor.
She was planning her retirement at North Carolina Central University at Durham when she was contacted by the Library of Congress. She did not hesitate. "I saw this as an opportunity to promote the awareness of, and an appreciation for, Afro-American culture," Render said.
Two years ago, Render organized the Daniel Alexander Payne Murray Afro-American Culture Club, named after one of the library's first black employes. The club regularly sponsors lectures, recitals and exhibits at the library's Coolidge Auditorium."
During her tenure at the Library of Congress, she has published two books on the writings of Charles W. Chesnutt, the last of which, simply called "Charles W. Chesnutt," has gone into its second printing, she said.
Her zeal is real. And in the yellowed documents and pages reclaimed from musty attics and forgotten bookcases, she's found a lesson: "Until we are aware of our history, come to appreciate it, and come to terms with it psychologically, we will not be able to operate effectively in a multi-ethnic culture."