The Forgotten Impact of Harvard’s First Black Graduate

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A century ago, Richard T. Greener died in Chicago. Despite his many accomplishments, his death on May 2, 1922 went almost unnoticed. The Chicago Tribune published a basic notice on May 4, marking the date of his death and his address, and noting that a private burial would be held on May 5 and that he would be buried in the city’s Graceland Cemetery, but nothing what’s more.

Greener was Harvard’s first black graduate in 1870 – but neither the Boston Globe nor the Harvard Crimson took note of his death. He was the first black professor at the University of South Carolina, where he served from 1873 to 1877 – but neither the student newspaper nor any local Columbia newspaper published a word of his death. His death was not noted in the Washington newspapers, even though he served as dean of Howard University Law School, lobbied Congress and presidents for civil rights legislation, and served as a United States diplomat in Russia. Greener was also a member of academic societies and civic and literary groups, nor do they appear to have praised him.

Why was Greener forgotten in 1922?

Despite his accomplishments in the era just after the Civil War, at the time of his death much of the country was eager to ignore and erase the contributions of black men and women. Downplaying the work of people like Greener helped portray the Reconstruction era as a failure, and obscured the violence of anti-black racism in the early 20th century. But by piecing together the story of his remarkable life, we can challenge these false accounts and uncover paths not taken.

Although born free in Philadelphia in 1844, Greener grew up in an America where most like him were enslaved. His family moved to Boston when he was a boy, and he had intermittent access to education, eventually heading to preparatory programs at Oberlin and then Phillips Academy in Andover, where he was their first black graduate in 1865, the year of the Civil War. ended. He entered Harvard and in 1870 became the institution’s first black graduate.

Greener distinguished himself at Harvard, winning awards for eloquence and writing, and he occasionally contributed to The Advocate, a student publication. When Charles Sumner, the most outspoken abolitionist in the US Senate, read an article Greener had written, he became a mentor and a friend.

In 1873 Greener was recruited to teach philosophy at the University of South Carolina. During Reconstruction, a new state constitution gave black men the right to vote and expanded educational opportunities. Thanks to black voters, South Carolina, for the first time, had a majority black state legislature. The legislature then elected black trustees to the university’s board of trustees who desegregated the student body. When hiring Greener, the board also desegregated the faculty.

At the University of South Carolina, Greener was a very busy man. In addition to teaching, he served for a time as librarian, reorganizing the library, based in part on his experience with the catalog and circulation system at Harvard and aided by his knowledge of Latin, Greek, and French. He attended law school and graduated in 1876. Informed by his own experience of repeating his freshman year, Greener helped create a preparatory program for incoming students, a “sub-freshman class”. He also taught at the state-run normal school on campus that trained teachers, the vast majority of whom were black women.

That this integrated university existed in South Carolina less than a decade after the end of the Civil War is nothing short of remarkable. Greener, his colleagues, and his students taught and learned in buildings named after former slaveholders where their antebellum predecessors had preached rights and the undoing of states. Greener delivered a eulogy to Sumner in 1874 in one such building, on the dais of Rutledge Chapel, the same place where Preston Brooks, Sumner’s attacker on the Senate floor in 1856, delivered his recitations and his disputes as a student.

While in South Carolina, Greener leveraged his eloquence as an orator in advocating for civil rights, often putting his life at risk. During a speech, he had a gun pointed at him, only to be taken to safety by a state senator. On election day in 1876, he was attacked twice while working at the polls.

The integrated university was not to last. With the end of reconstruction, the University of South Carolina closed its doors to African Americans in 1877 and would not reopen until 1963.

Greener had a varied career after his time in South Carolina, sometimes enjoying great success and at others painful failure. He served as dean of the Howard University School of Law, trustee of the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, and diplomat in Vladivostok, Russia.

But Greener struggled to find his footing. He was an associate of both Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois, but also tried to curry favor with Booker T. Washington. He had trouble keeping a sure footing. His later years were spent mostly in obscurity, perhaps in part because his advocacy of intellectual individualism meant he did not fit easily into any camp that would make him a recognizable black leader. Moreover, his seven years in Russia diminished his visibility at home.

Although forgotten for most of the 20th century, it has been rediscovered in recent years thanks in part to social awakenings and increased access to newly discovered archival sources. While some may still want to ignore this story, that is no longer possible. These stories, brought to light, are powerful examples of parts of our history that we do not yet fully understand.

In 2010, my colleague Katherine Chaddock and I attended a historic conference in Cambridge, where she came across a plaque about Greener placed by the Cambridge Historical Commission in an alcove of a building near Harvard Square. Once back in Columbia, she showed it to students who asked why the University of South Carolina didn’t have something honoring Greener. This question gave us and another colleague, Lydia Brandt, the spark to bring Greener’s story to life. (As the University of South Carolina celebrated its bicentennial in 2001, a play about Greener called “The White Problem”, the name of one of his essays, was commissioned and performed. There is a scholarship in his name , but its name and history were still largely unknown on campus.)

Meanwhile, Greener’s Harvard and University of South Carolina Law School undergraduate degrees were discovered in Chicago in 2012, and Harvard unveiled a portrait of Greener in 2016. Chaddock released a biography in 2017. And on February 21, 2018, a nine-foot statue of Greener was unveiled at the center of the University of South Carolina campus.

Harvard recently released a report, “Harvard & The Legacy of Slavery,” and held a day-long symposium on addressing this history. Greener is mentioned in the report as an example of black resistance to racism. Greener wrote in his essay “The White Problem” in 1894, that “slavery has been abolished in America; the trail of the serpent, however, still marks the ground. This lead helps explain the erasure of numbers such as Greener.

Although it comes a century too late, this eulogy reminds us of Greener’s remarkable and complicated life and shows how important it is to remember. It is an important symbol of the broken promises of the Reconstruction era. His story teaches us what he and others accomplished during a volatile and pivotal part of our history. And it’s a reminder of how different the course of history could have been and how understanding that history can inform our future as a nation.


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