In the fall of 2016, the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees voted to erect a statue in honor of an African-American leader who has been largely overlooked by school history.
His name is Richard Greener, who besides being the first black professor at USC is also the first black graduate of Harvard and — as commercial agent to Vladivostok under the McKinley administration — the first black ambassador to a predominantly white territory.
He was a man ahead of his time and, as USC professor Katherine Chaddock details in her new biography — Uncompromising Activist: Richard Greener, First Black Graduate of Harvard College — he paid dearly for it, both professionally and personally.
He was a skilled orator and influential polemicist; a black intellectual in a time when people scoffed at the idea of black intelligence. He was also a light-skinned man who was often as ostracized by blacks as he was by whites, and a civil rights leader who would be eclipsed by the movement he helped foment.
“I think when you had somebody like Frederick Douglass fighting for abolition, and then abolition happened — whoa, what a success,” Chaddock said in an interview. “But fighting for equal rights, and actually they got less and less equal during Greener’s life, you can’t say, ‘I set out to level the playing field and look, now it’s level.’ It didn’t happen that way.”
Time at first seemed to be on Greener’s side. When he arrived at USC in 1873, Reconstruction was in full swing. Black citizens were becoming integrated into society and taking on roles as every profession. The future looked bright for a 29-year-old black scholar.
Besides being a teacher of “mental and moral philosophy,” Greener also became school librarian. A serious bibliophile, he enthusiastically took on the role of putting the school’s war-ravaged book collection into shape. He would also be among the first black graduates of USC’s law school. Through it all, he worked diligently to extend to other promising black students the same opportunities he had.
With the violent end of Reconstruction in 1877, Greener’s situation went sour. Segregation and Jim Crow laws became the order of the day; USC was closed down — reopening a few years later as a white-only institution, which it would remain until 1963 — and Greener was out of a job. Also, in a retaliatory measure by hostile politicians, he was denied back wages.
“Greener learned to try to work through the political system,” Chaddock said, but wasn’t able to adapt to changing times. “He didn’t change his strategy that soon, or get any kind of new strategy, other than working through the political system. Then all of a sudden, the political system didn’t include blacks or anything about giving them equality. They weren’t voting anymore — they couldn’t vote, they couldn’t possibly pass all those ridiculous tests and poll taxes. So his timing wasn’t good.”
He was also a man of two worlds. His light skin allowed him to move easily among the white movers and shakers, but also alienated him from his own people. He was blackballed from the Harvard Club because of his color. He wasn’t invited to join the American Negro Academy because, according to the founder, Greener “has been a white man in New York and turned his back upon all his colored acquaintances.”
“One feels his twoness,” W.E.B. DuBois later wrote. “An American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
“I thought he was just a first in a lot of ways,” Chaddock said. “When he was the first black professor at a white university, he actually accomplished stuff. He went to the Legislature and got the funds for preparatory programs so that blacks could be prepared to go there. He went and got the funds for three scholarships from every one of 34 counties for poor kids so the blacks could afford to go there. He reorganized the library and got the first card catalog.”
Writing the book, for Chaddock, was in some ways a means of repaying a historical debt.
“I felt a responsibility to get him something he deserved,” she said, “which was recognition for what he did.”