Thursday, March 15, 2012

Remarkable Trove Found in Chicago: Richard T. Greener

Richard Theodore Greener, A.B. 1870, Harvard College,
LL.B. 1876, University of South Carolina
(courtesy of Harvard University Library)
It was, at least from the outside, just another abandoned house on the South Side of Chicago, at 75th and Sangamon.  According to Kim Janssen's article in the Chicago Sun-Times, squatters, drug addicts, and stray animals had reduced it mostly to a shell, its front door flapping open like a tribute to desolation. Rufus McDonald, one of the workers hired to raze the house, made a remarkable discovery in its attic. There he found a steamer trunk full of papers, including what appeared to be--and was--a Harvard College diploma from 1870. While this would not be unheard of--Chicago has long had among its residents graduates of Harvard, and the neighborhood, Englewood, was once part of the very vibrant southern part of the post-fire 19th and early 20th century metropolis. McDonald went through the papers and noticed other documents that caught his eye: a law licence from South Carolina; a photograph of a man who appeared to be mixed-race or black; and an 1853 or 1854 book entitled Autographs for Freedom, a publication of the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society.

Richard Theodore Greener (1844-1922)
University of South Carolina
McDonald had the presence of mind to collect all the papers and put them in a brown paper bag, despite being told by his crew to trash them, and took them to book expert on the northside of Chicago. The expert reviewed the documents and let McDonald know about his find: they had originally belonged to Richard Theodore Greener (1844-1922), the first African-American graduate of Harvard College (and the second black person to have been admitted to the college).  Not only that, but Greener was a major intellectual and public figure of his day, despite the constraints racism imposed upon him. He became the first, and the for decades the only, black professor (of philosophy) at the University of South Carolina, during the brief window Reconstruction provided (1873-1877), and was admitted to the bar in that state in 1876; he became a dean of Howard University's School of Law in 1879; he helped to elect several Republican presidents and successfully pushed that party to condemn lynching; he was served in the foreign service in Russia in 1898, and later in China.
Richard T. Greener
(courtesy Harvard University Library)
Who was this extraordinary person, Theodore Greener, almost completely unknown by anyone today, though he is, I must note, not infrequently invoked by Harvard? Historian Michael Mounter wrote his doctoral thesis on Greener and has uncovered a good deal about his life. He was born the grandson of a slave in Philadelphia, and his father was a mariner; his uncle, in whose orbit he spent a great deal of time, was a prosperous barber and politically active in the civic affairs of that city.  When he was 10 the family moved to Boston, where he was barred from attending the public schools because of his race, so his mother enrolled him in a private school, from which he later had to withdraw when his father never returned from the Gold Rush in California. He began working as a porter at the age of 14, and it was two Boston businessmen, George Herbert Palmer and Augustus Batchelder, who funded Greener's education at Oberlin College's preparatory school from 1862-1864 (during the US Civil War, no less), and then at Phillips Academy from 1864-65, before Batchelder arranged for his admission, as an experimental, to the college, where he was an academic standout.

Richard T. Greener
Several of Harvard's other schools had already admitted and graduated black students: Harvard Medical School in 1850 had admitted three students, including author and anti-slavery activist Martin Delany, before rescinding the offers after pressure from white students; in 1869 Harvard Law School graduated its first African American, George Lewis Ruffin, who in 1883 became Massachusetts' first black judge; and that same year, Harvard Dental School graduated a black student, Robert Tanner Freeman. (The following year, George Franklin Grant would graduated with a dental degree, before going on to invent the golf tee.)

McDonald holding a copy of Greener's
diploma from the University of South Carolina
(Cheryl Corley/NPR)

Indeed, a tiny number of African Americans had previously received undergraduate and graduate from institutions ranging from Oberlin College to Brown University to Middlebury College, during a period when the majority of black people were forbidden, sometimes at penalty of death, from learning to read or write, and the majority were enslaved. After Greener's graduation, Harvard would admit a few more African Americans to its various schools through the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, though they remained a tiny but often publicly noteworthy minority until the 1970s. Among the most famous 19th century graduates after Greener include W. E. B. DuBois (AB 1890, AM 1891, PhD 1895, becoming the first African American earn a doctorate in the United States); his classmate Clement G. Morgan (AB 1890, LLB 1893, the first person to hold both degrees from Harvard, and the first black Senior Class Orator); and the anti-racist and peace activist William Monroe Trotter (AB 1895, AM 1896).

McDonald holding one of the photographs
he found, of Richard T. Greener
(Cheryl Corley/NPR)
But back to McDonald: He not only refused any money from the appraiser for the documents, but went back to the Englewood residence to fetch the trunk. It, like the house, was already gone. He retains the rights to the documents, and is considering where they might go. Interested parties include Harvard itself; the Sun-Times report quotes Harvard professor and scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., for many years head of its African and African American Studies Department, as having expressed interest, though he has told McDonald not to expect a mint in return. Other possible places the papers might go would include the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; the Moorland-Spingarn Research Collection at Howard University; the Library of Congress; or other notable research collections around the country. Perhaps someone will donate the papers to the forthcoming Museum of African American History in Washington. Whatever the case, it is likely a private collector will snap them up and donate them to one of these institutions. They will be invaluable for historians, scholars, writers, and others interested in Greener and the era.

Belle da Costa Greene
(Library Portraits)
One final note: Greener's family life, as the Sun-Times mentions, was a sad one. He had two families, in fact, one with his wife Genevieve Ida Fleet, the scion of a notable black Washington family, producing six children, and, after he headed to Russia, he established a common-law family with a Japanese woman, Mishi Kawashima, with whom he had three children. One of his daughters from his first marriage, Belle da Costa Greene, would go on to considerable fame on her own, as the biographer Heidi Ardizzone recounts in her enthralling book, An Illuminated Presence: Belle da Costa Greene's Journey from Prejudice to Privilege (W. W. Norton, 2007). Greene, having dropped the "r" from her last name and changed her middle name from "Marian" to the Mediterranean-sounding "da Costa," not only "passed" as a white person in turn of the century New York, becoming a society cynosure and a love interest, for a long period, of the connoisseur Bernard Berenson, but also, astonishingly, the person whom financier J. P. Morgan chose to organize his library and subsequently the first Director of the Pierpont Morgan Library. The article notes that Greene ordered all her papers burned before her death in 1950, but the discovery of her father's papers could shed light not only on his life and times, but on her, her mother, and her siblings. Ardizzone points out that she might have visited her father in Chicago in 1913, though it is unlikely that she let many people in on her familial link, even though or especially because her boss and her father both served together on the committee to build Grant's Tomb in New York!

Bella da Costa Greene
(Morgan Library, Photo: Clarence White)

Although Greener did live with cousins in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago from 1909 until his death in 1922, there is no known connection to the house in Englewood. The districts sit not that far apart, however, one might imagine that someone in the Greener family could have moved to Englewood at some point, as that has been a predominantly black neighborhood of Chicago since the 1920s. In fact, it would be fascinating, I think, for some enterprising journalists, scholars and creative writers to trace out some of the connections among black Chicagoans radiating outwards from Greener and his relatives. I have noted to friends that you never know whom you might come across here or in other major cities. Once, a few years back when I went with my cousin to meet an elderly woman who had a little gallery in her beautiful South Side house and was selling some of my cousin's paintings, I noted what appeared to be some very fine art. It turned out that she and her husband were longtime major collectors of all kinds of art, most of it by African Americans, some of whom, like Charles Sebree, had been close friends of hers. (I will always also recall a beautiful sculpture by the Russian artist Archipenko.) But most remarkable to me was my discovery, when wandering in her living room, of a photo of a man whose face I immediately recognized, having grown up hearing about him and having even written a poem, many years before, that called his name forth. The man, it turned out, was her grandfather. And, it also turned out, he was the first black US Senator, seated during Reconstruction, from none other than Mississippi: Hiram Rhodes Revels. She seemed stunned that I knew who he was; I was stunned that I was standing there talking to one of his direct descendants. I imagine there are people who might know the story of Greener's trunk, and his family, if they talk to the right people and look in the right places, here in Chicago. And there are more such troves, and histories, and stories, our histories and stories, out there, waiting to be discovered, and told.

1 comment:

  1. What an amazing story. Now I want to read the book about Belle Greene.