COLUMBIA — Two rare documents from a fleeting time after the Civil War when the University of South Carolina first admitted African-American students and faculty went on exhibition Tuesday, recalling early steps toward racial equality that succumbed to the long era of segregation.
A law school diploma from the university and a South Carolina law license granted in 1876 to Richard Theodore Greener, the first African-American faculty member of the university, were scheduled for a ceremonial presentation at noon Tuesday at the South Caroliniana Library on the school’s Columbia campus.
Both documents survived after being plucked from a Chicago home in 2009 that was about to be demolished.
Greener, the first African-American graduate of Harvard and a promising intellectual who fought for equality, was invited to join the faculty of the South Carolina university in 1873, where he later became the first black head of its library. At the time, the prominent Southern university was briefly integrated in the post-war Reconstruction era.
“It was a fascinating time in our history, a time of so much hope. Reconstruction was an era when those who had been so oppressed believed they might achieve equality,” said the university’s archivist, Elizabeth Cassidy West.
Greener taught philosophy, Latin and Greek, and also studied law. He graduated from the university’s law school and was licensed to practice law in 1876.
Greener’s diploma and law license were going on display Tuesday as part of an exhibit detailing contributions blacks have played in the university’s history. The exhibition coincides with the university’s yearlong remembrance of events that led up to 1963, when the school once again admitted black students amid the struggle for Civil Rights.
The era of integration didn’t last long after the war. In 1877, South Carolina’s government closed the school and then reopened it as an all-white institution in 1880, according to university spokeswoman Megan Sexton.
“It was considered a stain on the university” to record that blacks had attended the school, West said. “Now, we look back on it, and we can say that it was really groundbreaking for a state-supported school at that time to have black faculty, a black trustee and black students.”
West said historians and scholars have some difficulty finding original documents from the time because many items were destroyed to eradicate the memory of blacks attending the school.
“We have books where entire pages were cut out of volumes, and just ‘negroes’ written in,” West said.
Even a historical plaque near the university’s famous “Horseshoe” collection of buildings built in the early 1800s makes reference to the time when “radicals” where in charge of the school.
For many in the state, the post-war era recalls a time of chaos and disarray, with destruction from the Civil War and the imposition of martial law. South Carolina is where the four-year war began when secessionist forces fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in April 1861, forcing its Union garrison to surrender.
Sexton said Greener was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Boston. With few public elementary schools in place, one could only enter higher education by being tutored. With the backing of a white supporter, Greener was able to get an education.
He later attended Oberlin and Phillips Academy before entering Harvard. While not the first black to enter Harvard, he was listed as its first to graduate in 1870, Sexton said. He then taught high school in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., before heading to South Carolina.
Sexton said that when South Carolina closed the university, Greener took a job at the Treasury Department in Washington and was a professor at the Howard University law school. He began a law career in the early 1880s and later served as a U.S. commercial agent to Vladivostok, Russia. He left the foreign service in the early 1900s and settled in Chicago with relatives in 1908.
The two historical documents being presented Tuesday were rescued from an abandoned home in Chicago just minutes before it was to be torn down, Sexton said.
West was one of the university’s officials who traveled to Chicago to inspect the documents after one of the workers plucked them from a chest in the abandoned home shortly before it was to be demolished in 2009.
No one knows how the documents found their way into the home, because Greener never lived in it. But the worker kept them, and several South Carolina donors helped the university pay for the two documents to become part of the school’s historical holdings, West said.
“My heart just jumped when we unrolled them, and I saw the university seal,” said West, recalling her first glance at the tattered papers. “This was my holy grail.”
Susanne M. Schafer can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/susannemarieap.