Figures In Black History: Richard Greener: Harvard's First African American Graduate

A profile of Richard Greener, who became Harvard's first African American graduate in 1870. He later became a lawyer, educator, and distiguished U.S. Consul and Diplomat.

Richard Theodore Greener was born on January 30, 1844 in Philadelphia. When Greener was about nine, his father left the family to pursue mining opportunities in California. Tragically, his father was presumed dead after efforts to locate him failed. His mother moved the family to Boston, then to Cambridge in search of educational opportunities for her son. Greener received his early education at the Broadway Grammar School until he was about 14, when he quit to support his mother.

Greener obtained several jobs and was able to support his family as well as pursue his educational goals. One of Greener's employers, Franklin B. Sanborn, a famous teacher and reformer, used his influence to get him accepted to Oberlin College, the first American college to admit blacks. After three years at Oberlin, Greener left to pursue his dream, to study at Harvard College. In preparation for the strenuous curriculum at Harvard, Greener studied at Phillips Andover Academy and graduated in 1865, excelling in all his courses. He entered Harvard in the fall of 1865 at the age of twenty-one. In his sophomore year at Harvard, he won a Bowdoin Prize for elocution and another, when he was a senior.

In 1870, Richard T. Greener received an A.B. degree from Harvard, becoming this New England college's first African American graduate. After graduation, Greener became principal of the Male Department at Philadelphia's Institute for Colored Youth, which later became Cheyney University. In 1873, he became principal of the Sumner High School in Washington, DC. At the same time, he was a staff member of The New National Era, then edited by abolitionist Frederick Douglass. He was also associate editor of the National Encyclopaedia of American Biography.

In late 1873, Greener became Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy at the University of South Carolina, where he served as librarian, taught Philosophy, and assisted in the Departments of Latin and Greek, Mathematics, and Constitutional History. In 1875, Greener became the first African American to be elected a member of the American Philological Association, the principal learned society for classical studies in North America.

Greener studied at the University of South Carolina's Law School and received a LL.B. degree in 1876, graduating with honors. He was admitted to the Supreme Court of South Carolina in 1877 and the bar of the District of Columbia the next year. In 1882, he received a LL.D. conferred by Monrovia College, Liberia, Africa, and in 1907 was honored with another LL.D. conferred by Howard University.

In 1879, Greener was appointed Dean of Howard University's Law Department. After leaving Howard in 1881, he opened a private law practice in Washington. During Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt's administrations, Greener was a prominent figure in national and international affairs. He became first secretary of New York's Grant Memorial Association, and assisted in raising funds to finance Grant's Tomb.

In 1898, he was appointed United Consul to Bombay India, then transferred to Vladivostok, Russia, becoming the first American to hold this post. In 1902, the Chinese Government decorated him with the Order of Double Dragon for his service to the Boxer War and assistance to Shansi famine sufferers. After his retirement in 1906, Greener lived in Chicago where he joined the Harvard Club. He died on May 15, 1922, leaving a record and memory in every way honorable.

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