All Scholars

GREENER, Richard Theodore

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  • Date of Birth: January 30, 1844
  • Born City: Philadelphia
  • Born State/Country: PA
  • Parents: Richard Wesley, a seaman, & Mary Ann Le Brune G.
  • Date of Death: May 2, 1922
  • Death City: Chicago
  • Death State/Country: IL
  • Married: Genevieve Ida Fleet, September 24, 1874.
  • Education:

    Preparatory School, Oberlin College, 1862-4; Phillips Academy (Andover, MA), 1864-5; B.A., Harvard, 1870; LL.D., U. of South Carolina, 1876; LL.D. (hon.), Wilberforce U., 1917.

  • Professional Experience:

    Teacher & principal, Institute for Colored Youth, Philadelphia, (now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania), 1870-2 ; Principal, Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, Washington, 1872-3; Prof. Moral & Mental philosophy, South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina), 1873-7; University librarian, 1875; clerk, U.S. Treasury Dept., 1877-9; professor, Howard U. Law School, 1877-9; dean, 1879-80; in private practice, Greener & Cook firm, 1879-85; secretary, Grant Monument Association 1885-93; civil service examiner, New York City, 1885-90; U.S. consul to Bombay (now Mumbai), 1898; first U.S. Consul to Vladivostok, Russia (later Trade representative), 1898-1905.

  • Publications:

    “The Tenure of Land in Ireland,” senior diss., Harvard College, 1870. “Richard T. Greener,” unpublished handwritten biographical sketch, May 19, 1870. Harvard University Archives; “Charles Sumner: The Idealist, Statesman, and Scholar,” Republic (Columbia, SC); “An Oration at the Celebration of the Festival of Saint John the Baptist, June 24, 1876, Savannah, GA,” (D. G. Patton, Stern, 1876); “The Emigration of Colored Citizens from the Southern States,” Journal of Social Science (May 1880) 22-34; “The Intellectual Position of the Negro,” National Quarterly Review 127 (July 1880) 168-89; “First Lessons in Greek—Prof. W. S. Scarborough,” Christian Recorder (September 29, 1881); “Speech at the Harvard Club of New York, February 21, 1881,” Harvard Register 3 (March 1881) 154-5. “The Future of the Negro,” North American Review 149, no. 332 (July 1884) 88– 93; “The White Problem,” Lend a Hand: A Record of Progress 12 (January– June 1894) 354– 67; “Educational Progress in Eastern Siberia,” in Annual Report of the Department of the Interior for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1900 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1901) 1427-30; “Reports of Commercial Agent R. T. Greener,” Consular Reports: July 1900: Commerce, ManufacturesEtc . Vols. 60, 65, 67, and 72 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1901 and 1903); “Educational Progress in Eastern Siberia.” In Annual Report of the Department of the Interior for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1902 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1903) 868-84;  “The Progress of the Negro Race.” Colored American Magazine 12 (February 1907): 115-17; “The First Congress of Colored Women,” A.M.E. Review 30 (July 1913): 23– 30 “The Birth of a World Power,” A.M.E. Review 30 (April 1914) 308-9; “Russia’s Financial Position during the Russo-Japanese War,” A.M.E. Review 32 (October 1915) 93-8 “A Britisher in the South.” A.M.E. Review 32 (April 1916) 250-2; “Reminiscences of Frederick Douglass.” Champion(February 1917): 291-5.

  • Notes:

    Though born to a free Black family in Philadelphia, Greener was raised from the age of ten in Cambridge, Mass., where he could attend the integrated Broadway Grammar School. When his father abandoned the family while pursuing his dreams during the California Gold Rush, Greener, aged 12, dropped out of school to support himself and his mother. He worked for a local jeweler named Augustus Batchelder whom he so impressed with his desire for an education that Batchelder supported him at the preparatory school at Oberlin (one of the first colleges to integrate) and Andover, from which he may have been the first Black graduate. He was accepted as “an experiment” by Harvard in 1865. The “experiment” was successful and Greener became the first African American to receive a B.A. from Harvard. He did so with honors: he was class orator and won the Boylston Prize. His gregarious personality ingratiated him with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., who took him on boat rides on the Charles River, Ulysses S. Grant, whose memory he would later serve as a member of the committee on Grant’s Tomb, and the Abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner, of whom he wrote an appreciative account in South Carolina. Despite these contacts and his Harvard degree, the only job available to him after graduation was as a teacher in a Philadelphia school run by a woman he had known at Oberlin. He lectured in neighboring states to mostly Black audiences on “The Great Pyramid: Its Age, Builders and Purpose,” “Socrates as a Teacher,” and “The Academic Life,” but also the difficulties for Blacks in the Reconstruction South. Greener continued to support the Republican Party among the African American population, but when a large number of Blacks attempted to vote in a mayoral 1872 election in Philadelphia, his assistant principal was shot and killed. Elevated to principal of the school for the remainder of the term, he quickly accepted another teaching job in Washington, where he also maintained his legal credentials by serving as a clerk and editor. His opposition to the integration policy of the Colored School Board of Washington meant that he could not be principal, though he could teach. It is not known how his name got to the Board of Education at the University of South Carolina: perhaps it came from his friend Senator Sumner. In any case Greener received in 1873 an unsolicited letter asking if he wished to be considered; before he could respond he received another saying he had been elected professor of Latin, Greek, and law. The University was the only public university in the South to desegregate its student body and its board of trustees; now it was the first in the South to employ a Black faculty member. The gregarious Greener made friends with his colleagues, who selected him to give the 1874 commencement address. His colleague in Greek, Fisk Parsons Brewer (1832-90), who had arrived the year before from the University of North Carolina, was already a member of the fledgling American Philological Association and might well have encouraged Greener to apply for membership. He was accepted in 1875, the same year he undertook to reorganize the university’s library, which had been pillaged by students and war, and began its card catalogue. He started preparatory program for “sub-Freshman” and obtained scholarships for students who might not have been able to come. 

    In 1876 he achieved a degree in law from the University’s Law School. He maintained his loyalty to the Republican Party and spoke at rallies in hostile parts of the state during the election of 1876 at some personal peril. In 1876 Greener became the first African American to have a paper accepted by the APA, “The Library of the University of South Carolina: Its Rare and Curious Books,” to be read at the 1877 meeting in Baltimore presided over by Basil L. Gildersleeve. With the end of Reconstruction, Greener and his family were the subject of threats by various White supporters of the Democrats who were poised to take over the government of the state. Greener packed up his family at Spring Break and returned to Washington before the University was closed. Amid the turmoil of the move, he did not attend the APA meeting, July 10-12, 1877, though he was only 40 miles away. No copy of his talk exists. It is not known if Greener attended any meetings of the APA, but he remained a member until 1885. 

    Greener opened a private law practice in Washington, DC, and famously defended Johnson Chesnut Whitaker, a Black West Point cadet who in 1881 was found beaten and tied to his bed in the barracks; he was subsequently accused of inflicting the injuries on himself and was dismissed from the corps. Greener argued for the defense at his court martial, but Whittaker was found guilty anyway. When Greener demanded a review, Whitaker was re-admitted to West Point. Because of his support for Republicans, he was given a post in the Treasury Department while he also taught law at the nascent Howard University Law School, which soon failed for want of students and endowment. He was a popular figure who gave talks and wrote a number of essays promoting integration and the emigration of Blacks from the South to the North. With his encouragement, his friend President Grant passed the first civil rights legislation in the country. Greener helped form a group to encourage Blacks in the South to move to the Midwest. Frederick Douglass (1818-95), who believed Blacks should work to recover their rights in the South, debated him on the subject. When Grant died in 1885, the shipping magnate W.R. Grace (1832-1904), the mayor of New York, wanted Grant buried in his city and appointed Greener secretary, the only salaried member of the Grant Monument Commission, charged with a myriad of responsibilities, including raising money and selecting an architect. Grace resigned from the commission before its 1897 dedication and Greener was fired. He maintained his activity for the Republicans. Mark Hanna (1837-1904), chairman of the Republican National Party, felt that Greener would be effective working on behalf of McKinley in the 1896 election with the Colored Men’s Bureau in Chicago, where more Blacks were likely to vote than in New York. He left his family in New York.

    With McKinley’s victory, Greener was rewarded with a consulship in Bombay (briefly), then in Vladivostok.  In Vladivostok he reported on the completion of the trans-Siberian Railway, was recognized by the Chinese government for his work for relief from famine of Chinese following the Boxer Rebellion, and in 1904 he oversaw the evacuation of Japanese from Sakhain Island during the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. His family did not accompany him either to India or Russia and Greener had three children by Japanese woman in Vladivostok.  When Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency after McKinley’s assassination, he relied on his friend and Greener’s antagonist Booker T. Washington (1856-1914) to control negro patronage jobs. Greener returned to Chicago in 1906. His family remained in New York and changed their names. Greener worked with W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963) and the NAACP, and was a lifelong friend of the Black classicist William Sanders Scarborough (1852-1926).

  • Sources:

    Allison Blakely, “Richard T. Greener and the ‘Talented Tenth’s’ Dilemma,” Journal of Negro History (1974) 305-21; Michael Robert Mounter, “Richard Theodore Greener and the African American Individual in a Black and White World,” in At Freedom’s Door: African American Founding Fathers and Lawyers in Reconstruction South Carolina, edited by  James Lowell Underwood and W. Lewis Burke. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000; Michele Valerie Ronnick, The First Three African American Members of the American Philological Association (n.p.: APA, 2001) VI-VIII; -----, "Richard Theodore Greener(1844-1922): The First African American Member of the American Philological Association and Graceland Cemetery," Classicizing Chicago (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, 2012).Katherine Reynolds Chaddock, Uncompromising Activist: Richard Greener, First Black Graduate of Harvard College (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017); Michele Valerie Ronnick, Twelve African American Members of the Society for Classical Studies: The First Five Decades (1875-1925): A Special Publication for the Sesquicentennial of the Society for Classical Studies (New York: Society for Classical Studies, 2018): 9-10; 

  • Author: Ward Briggs