Lost documents of first black Harvard graduate found in abandoned Chicago attic

Lost documents of first black Harvard graduate found in abandoned Chicago attic

Papers found in the attic of an abandoned Chicago house have been identified as those of Richard T Greener, the first ever African-American graduate from Harvard in 1870.

House clearance contractor Rufus McDonald discovered the historical documents in  hidden in a trunk in the roof space of the house, just prior to its demolition in 2009.  It was a remarkable find, particularly as everything else not nailed down in the property had already been stolen.  McDonald thought the contents were important but wasn’t sure.  Fellow members of his clearance team told him to throw the trunk and its contents away, but instead he put the documents in a bag for safekeeping.

Historians had thought any surviving documents had been lost in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, as Greener was apparently there at the time.  This week, however, they verified Greener’s 1870 Harvard diploma, his law license, and photos and papers connected to his diplomatic role in Russia and his friendship with President Ulysses S Grant.

Greener was an important figure in black history as a brilliant attorney, scholar, diplomat and orator.  Born to the son of a slave in Philadelphia in 1844, he moved with his mother to Boston when he was 9 years old.  He left school at 14 and became a porter at a Boston hotel to earn money for his family.  Two of his employers helped him to enroll in preparatory school and later with his admission to Harvard in 1865 as an experiment in the education of African-Americans.  In 1870 Greener graduated from Harvard with honours.

He went on to become professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina in 1873.  He later worked at the US Treasury, becoming involved in Washington politics in and befriending President Ulysses S. Grant, whose memorial he later helped build.  He also served as dean of the Howard Law School from 1878 to 1880.  In 1898 he was appointed as the US Commercial Agent in Vladivostok, Russia, and played an important role in the Russo-Japanese war.  Greener left the US foreign service in 1905 and settled in Chicago, practicing law and occasionally lecturing on his life and times.  He died in Chicago in 1922 at the age of 78, just six miles away from where the documents were found.

Harvard, the DuSable Museum of African American History, the Pierpont Morgan Library, the Black Metropolis Research Consortium and Greener’s grandaughter are all are interested in obtaining the documents, which will hopefully mean a decent pay off for Rufus McDonald and his amazing find.

That reminds me, our attic is overdue a clear out.

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