Richard Theodore Greener

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Richard Theodore Greener
Richard Theodore Greener.jpg
Dean of Howard Law School
In office
1878 (1878) – 1880 (1880)
Personal details
Born(1844-01-30)January 30, 1844
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
DiedMay 2, 1922(1922-05-02) (aged 78)
Chicago, Illinois
Political partyRepublican
ChildrenBelle da Costa Greene
Alma materPhillips Academy Andover
Oberlin College (did not graduate)
Harvard University (A.B.)
University of South Carolina (LL.B.)
ProfessionProfessor, Diplomat, Attorney

Richard Theodore Greener (January 30, 1844 – May 2, 1922) was the first African American graduate of Harvard College. He later went on to become the dean of the Howard University School of Law.

Early life and education[edit]

Richard Greener was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1844[1] and moved with his mother to Boston when he was approximately nine years old. He quit school in his mid-teens to earn money for his family, but one of his employers, Franklin B. Sanborn, helped him to enroll in preparatory school at Oberlin College. He then studied at Phillips Academy, graduating in 1865. After three years at Oberlin, Greener transferred to Harvard College and earned a bachelor's degree in 1870. His admission to Harvard was "an experiment" by the administration and paved the way for many more black graduates of Harvard.[2]

An article appeared in the Rochester Daily Democrat on August 16, 1869: "Richard Theodore Greener, a young colored man and a member of the senior class of Harvard College, is giving public readings in Philadelphia. Mr. Greener's history is that of a persevering young man who has succeeded in living down the prejudices against his race and color, and attaining by industry, ability, and good character, a position of which he may well feel proud. He was awarded last year, at Harvard College, the prize for reading, and this year he has drilled two young white men who have likewise obtained prizes in the same branch. His course at Harvard has throughout been honorable. He is the first colored youth who has ever passed through that college."

Personal life[edit]

Richard T. Greener circa 1887[3]

On September 24, 1874, Greener married Genevieve Ida Fleet, and they had six children. One of his daughters was Belle da Costa Greene, a prominent librarian. Greener separated from his wife, although they never divorced. She and her daughters changed their name to "Greene" to disassociate themselves from him. Belle, personal librarian to J. P. Morgan, passed for white.

In 1898 Greener was appointed by President William McKinley as General Consul at Bombay, India. Three year later he accepted a post in Vladivostok, Russia. Leaving his family, he took a Japanese common-law wife, Mishi Kawashima, with whom he had three children. He successfully served as an American representative during the Russo-Japanese War, but was fired in 1905. Greener settled in Chicago with relatives. He held a job as an agent for an insurance company, practiced law, and occasionally lectured on his life and times. He died of natural causes in Chicago on May 2, 1922, aged 78.[4]

His Harvard diploma and other personal papers were rediscovered in an attic in the South Side of Chicago in the early 21st century.[2] A great deal of discussion surrounds where the papers should be archived.

Professional hard times[edit]

Academic career[edit]

After graduating for Harvard, he was made principal in the male department of the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, a position he held from September 1870 until December 1872. In this position, he followed Octavius V. Catto, who was shot in a riot. From January 1 to July 1, 1873, he was principal of the Sumner High School,[5] a Preparatory School for Colored Children in Washington, D.C.. Greener accepted the professorship of mental and moral philosophy at the University of South Carolina in October 1873, where he was the university's first African-American faculty member[6] He also served as a librarian there helping to "reorganize and catalog the library's holdings which were in disarray after the Civil War"[7] and wrote a monograph on the rare books of the library. His responsibilities included assisting in the departments of Latin and Greek and teaching classes in International Law and the Constitution of the United States.[5]

He graduated from the law school at South Carolina University and was admitted to practice in the Supreme Court of South Carolina on December 20, 1876.[5] When the university was closed in June 1877 by Wade Hampton III and the newly elected Democratic regime, Greener moved to Washington, D.C. and he was admitted to the Bar of the District of Columbia on April 14, 1877.[5] In DC in 1877, he took a position as a professor in the Howard Law School. He served as dean of the Howard University School of Law from 1878 to 1880,[4] succeeding John H. Cooke.[5] In 2009, some of his personal papers were discovered in the attic of an abandoned home on the south side of Chicago by a member of a demolition crew.[2][6]

Political and public service career[edit]

In 1875, he was chosen by the General Assembly of South Carolina to be a member of a commission to revise the South Carolina school system. In 1880 he became a law clerk of the first comptroller of the United States Treasury, a position he held until February 28, 1882. He also worked a number of famous legal cases. He was associate counsel of Jeremiah M. Wilson in the defense of Samuel L. Perry and of Martin I. Townsend in the defense of Johnson Chesnut Whittaker in a court of inquiry in April and May 1880 where Towsend and Greener successfully gained Whittaker release and the granting of a court-martial. Greener assisted Daniel Henry Chamberlain in Whittaker's defense during the court-martial.[5]

From 1876 to 1879 he represented South Carolina in the Union League of America and was president of the South Carolina Republican Association in 1887 and was active in freemasonry.[5] From 1885 to 1892, Greener served as secretary of the Grant Monument Association, where he is credited with having led the initial fundraising effort [8] that eventually brought in donations from 90,000 people worldwide to construct Grant's Tomb, still the largest mausoleum in North America. From 1885 to 1890 he was chief examiner of the civil service board for New York City and County. In the 1896 election, he served as the head of the Colored Bureau of the National Republican Party in Chicago.[9]

In 1898, Greener was appointed as the United States Commercial Agent in Vladivostok, Russia, after a quick stint in Bombay, India.[1] He held this until 1905. Greener left the foreign service in 1905, settling in Chicago with relatives.[4]

Other ventures[edit]

Greener also pursued a career as a writer. He was a staff member at The New National Era, serving as associate editor from April to October 1873,[5] which at the time was edited by abolitionist Frederick Douglass. At the same time he was also an associate editor for the National Encyclopedia for American Biography.[10]

In 1875, he became the first African American to be elected a member of the American Philological Association, the primary academic society for classical studies in North America.

Honors and awards[edit]

Along with having accomplished many African-American firsts, Greener earned several awards in his lifetime. In 1902, the Chinese government decorated him with the Order of the Double Dragon for his service to the Boxer War and assistance to Shansi famine sufferers.[1] While at Harvard in 1868 and 1870 he earned the Bowdoin Prize for elocution.[10]

He received two honorary Doctorates of Laws, one from Monrovia College in Liberia in 1882, and the other from Howard University in 1907.[1] In addition, several institutes have scholarships in his name. Phillips Academy has the Richard T. Greener 1865 Endowed Scholarship awarded to one Andover student annually. The University of South Carolina's Black Alumni Council sponsors the Richard T. Greener Endowment Fund, which provides $8,000 to six USC students for their four-year tuition.[11]

The central quadrangle at Phillips Academy was named in honor of alumnus Richard T. Greener in 2018. The University of South Carolina is honoring his legacy by erecting a statue of Greener.[12]


  1. ^ a b c d Hatley, Leshell (2010-08-26). "Richard T. Greener: 1st Black Graduate of Harvard University". The Black Scholars Index. Archived from the original on 2010-12-27. Retrieved 2012-03-16.
  2. ^ a b c Janssen, Kim (2012-03-11). "'It gives me gooseflesh': Remarkable find in South Side attic". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on 2012-03-13.
  3. ^ Image from The Colored American in 1900; older version is in Simmons, William J., and Henry McNeal Turner, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising, G. M. Rewell & Company, 1887, pp. 327-335.
  4. ^ a b c Mounter, Michael Robert. "A Brief Biography of Richard Greener". University of South Carolina. Retrieved 2012-03-16.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Simmons, William J., and Henry McNeal Turner, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising, GM Rewell & Company, 1887, pp. 327–335.
  6. ^ a b Schafer, Susan A. (2013-10-15). "Black Scholar's Post-Civil War Diploma Survives". Associated Press. Retrieved 2018-03-04.
  7. ^ "Richard T. Greener". University of South Carolina. 2013-11-23. Retrieved 2013-11-23.
  8. ^ National Park Service, U.S. Dept. of Interior (2012). General Grant (372-849/90989 ed.). Washington, DC: GPO.
  9. ^ "Greener, Richard Theodore". South Carolina Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2019-02-05.
  10. ^ a b "A legal and political advisor, Richard Greener". African American Registry. Retrieved 2012-03-17.
  11. ^ "Richard T. Greener Endowment Fund". My Carolina Alumni Association. Retrieved 2012-03-16.
  12. ^ Wilks, Avery (January 29, 2017). "Statue to Honor 1st Black Professor". The State. Retrieved 2017-01-30.

Further reading[edit]