An Historic Find in a Chicago Attic: The Papers of Harvard’s First Black Graduate

In 2009, a home at 75th Street and Sangamon Street in the Englewood section of Chicago was contracted for demolition. The house was home to squatters and had been looted of anything of apparent value. But the contractor found an old trunk in the attic which contained the papers of Richard T. Greener. He didn’t know who Greener was, but later discovered he was the first Black graduate of Harvard University.

Included in the papers was Greener’s Harvard diploma, his law license, photos, and documents relating to the diplomatic role he undertook in Russia at the bequest of President William McKinley.

After graduating from Harvard in 1870, Greener was appointed a professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina. When Reconstruction ended after the 1876 presidential election, Blacks were purged from the University of South Carolina and Greener lost his job. He became dean of the Howard University School of Law.

No one knows how Greener’s papers got into the attic of the Englewood home. Greener spent the last years of his life in Hyde Park. But that is six miles from where the papers were discovered.

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  1. This is very historically important to know at last, the first black Harvard University graduate as way back as 1870. History is a powerful reflection of times and events and history should be esteemed beyond just being a subject in schools.

    It is miraculous that Dr Greene’s written paper has been found. Please preserve this piece of history for African American generations to learn so they teach others that may be interested.

    Dr. Offiong
    Webster University
    TN Campus

  2. I was astonished to read of the great find by a demolition contractor. During Black History Month I shared the history of Dr. Greener with my students.

    The BIG question is who has rights to the documents? Harvard, Howard Univ., Univ. of South Carolina should all want them. I would be interested in knowing who owned the Chicago home to try and gain some perspective on why the papers where there. Amazing find!

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