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Uncompromising activist: Richard Greener, first black graduate of Harvard College.

While many people are familiar with the activism of W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, one of their contemporaries, Richard Theodore Greener (1844-1922), has largely been forgotten by history. Scholars assumed that Greeners private papers were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, but in 2009, his diplomas and personal correspondence were discovered by construction worker Rufus McDonald in a steamer trunk in a Chicago attic. Greener was a free Black man who became the first Black graduate of Harvard College (now the undergraduate program within Harvard University). Katherine Reynolds Chad-dock has written a thorough narrative biography, Uncompromising Activist: Richard Greener, First Black Graduate of Harvard College, which will generate renewed attention and interest in Greener's life and work.


Greener was born in Philadelphia in 1844. His family later moved to Boston and Cambridge. He was a student in the preparatory course at Oberlin Collegiate Institute (now Oberlin College) and attended Phillips Academy at Andover. With mentoring and support from his benefactor, jeweler Augustus Batchelder, Greener matriculated at Harvard in 1865. Although he excelled in oral communication, Greener had difficulties in mathematics in part due to inadequacies in his former education. With continued financial aid from Batchelder and some private tutoring, Greener graduated in 1870 with his bachelors degree.

Following graduation, Greener worked at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia (later Cheney University). He became the first Black faculty member at the University of South Carolina. He was also appointed as university librarian and earned his law degree there. After moving to Washington, D.C, he worked at the U.S. Treasury Department and served as dean of the Law Department at Howard University.

Greener was active in Republican politics and gained a reputation as a skilled orator. He wrote opinion pieces and travelled to speak in support of civil rights for African-Americans. At various points, Greener practiced law and sold insurance. Greener had difficulty securing continued full-time employment and experienced financial distress during the course of his career. At the age of 54, Greener was appointed by President McKinley to serve as U.S. consul in Vladivostok, Russia, where he supported U.S. trade interests. When he returned to the U.S., Greener settled in Chicago and lived out the rest of his life there.

Throughout his life and career, some African-Americans were skeptical of Greener due to his light skin and his willingness to socialize with White friends and colleagues. He married and had five children with Genevieve Ida Fleet, who was also light-skinned. While they lived in New York, Greener and his wife separated. Greeners wife and children began using the last name "Greene" and passed as White. Greener's daughter Belle da Costa Greene became J.P. Morgan's librarian and served as the first director of the Pierpont Morgan Library (now the Morgan Library and Museum).

While in Vladivostok, Greener engaged in a long-term relationship with a Japanese woman, Mishiyo Kawashima, with whom he had three children. Based on correspondence between Greener and one of his Japanese children, it is unclear if Greener's Japanese children knew of his racial heritage.

Chaddock's work does an admirable job of setting Greener within the context of U.S. history. Greener crossed paths with many notable intellectuals and politicians, and Chaddock is careful to identify major figures and to explain their importance within U.S. culture and politics. In addition, she discusses both racism and colorism. For example, she explains how a disproportionate number of light-skinned African-Americans were able to secure employment and other opportunities that were denied to other African-Americans in the post-Civil War era. Chaddock's work is full of juicy tidbits and asides as she mentions important historical figures whose lives intersect with Greener's, but such details may be somewhat distracting to the reader.

Overall, Chaddock offers a very sympathetic portrait of Greener, which is evident in the title. As a light-skinned African-American, Greener enjoyed certain advantages, which Chaddock acknowledges. Yet, Greener's decisions to pass as White when convenient or to choose not to disclose his racial identification are certainly forms of compromise. Chaddock is generous in her view of Greener's commitment to racial uplift and considers it "understandable" that Greener's American family later chose to pass as White.

Greener's life illustrates the myth of education as a panacea for racial progress in the U.S. Despite the extraordinary feat of graduating from Harvard, he was not afforded the same opportunities and networks enjoyed by other Harvard alumni due to racism. His struggles with job security, personal finances, as well as on- and off-campus activism are likely to resonate with many contemporary students and faculty.


- Dr. Nyasha Junior is an assistant professor of Hebrew Bible in the Department of Religion at Temple University in Philadelphia.
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Title Annotation:bookshelf
Author:Junior, Nyasha
Publication:Diverse Issues in Higher Education
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 7, 2017
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