On the South Side of Chicago, a piece of black history was found by contractor Rufus McDonald, inside the attic of a home that was set to be demolished in 2009. Inside the abandoned house at 75th and Sagamon was a diploma dated back in 1870, with photos and papers of Mr. Richard Theodore Greener, Harvard’s first black graduate. Also found among the items was proof of a friendship between Greener and President Ulysses S. Grant.
Although the finder of the trunk was encouraged to discard the water-damaged documents, his better judgment and a copy of the 1853 book Autographs for Freedom, made him think twice.
Vandals had taken everything thought to be of worth inside the unlocked unit, even the copper piping. What they didn’t realize was the most valuable item was in the attic, in an old trunk. It’s unknown as to how the papers got to the Englewood home. They were thought to be destroyed by a San Francisco earthquake in 1906. Greener was visiting the area at that time and it was assumed the paperwork was with him.
Born to a slave in January, 1844, Richard Greener attended school, but dropped out at age 14 to work as a Boston hotel porter. He was taken in by two white businessmen, who helped to further his education and helped him apply to Harvard in 1865. He was accepted into the School of Foreign Science and won top awards in speaking and writing at the college. In 1873, Greener became the first black professor at the University of South Carolina. His tenure was cut short during a rally when an assassination attempt was made on his life. He later accepted another job in education, becoming the Dean of Howard University’s Law School.
In 1898, after being a pawn of groups with political agendas, Richard Greener accepted a job in Vladivostok, Russia, courtesy of President William McKinley. He left his family and started a new family with a Japanese common-law wife and worked in Russia until 1905.
In his remaining years of life, Richard Greener lived with family in the Hyde Park area, which was six miles away from the home where the trunk was found. He lost contact with wives and children of both families, with the exception of his daughter, Bella de Costa Greene.
Richard Greener died in 1922.
Since the discovery, USC has reportedly paid McDonald $52,000. According to the Chicago Sun Times, McDonald has threatened to destroy the documents if Harvard refuses to pay him an adequate amount. They have reportedly offered him $7,500 for a collection that was appraised at over $65,000. In the documents, historians found that blacks and whites were eating and learning together in 1876, something that was unthinkable pre-Reconstruction. The documents were even more significant for USC, as racists of the era tried to eliminate the presence of black students at USC by cutting them out of books and records.
McDonald has stated that he was frustrated by Harvard’s offer and has openly threatened to burn the remaining items.