Harvard University Archives: Recent Acquisition

Diploma of Richard T. Greener, AB 1870

Harvard diploma awarded to Richard T. Greener on Commencement Day 1870

(May 26, 2015) The Harvard University Archives is pleased to announce the addition of Richard T. Greener's Harvard diploma to other Greener papers and memorabilia held by the Archives. 

Richard Theodore Greener (January 30, 1844 – May 2, 1922) was the first African-American graduate of Harvard College.

Richard T. Greener, Class Album photograph, 1870, HUP Greener, Richard T. (1b), HUABorn in Philadelphia, Greener moved with his mother to Boston, and then to Cambridge, when he was still a boy.  At the age of fourteen, he left school to help support his family. With the encouragement of journalist and activist Franklin B. Sanborn (Class of 1855), Greener returned to his studies at Phillips Andover Academy and Oberlin College.  In 1865 Greener entered Harvard as a 21-year-old freshman.  The contemporary Boston newspaper The Independent noted that, with Greener’s admission, Harvard had “taken its stand upon the principle of equal rights, irrespective of color.” As an undergraduate, Greener won two Bowdoin Prizes for writing and elocution before graduating in 1870.

After graduation, Greener forged a career in academia and government service, joining the ranks of intellectuals that W.E.B. DuBois later termed the “talented tenth,” the black “aristocracy of character and talent” whose mission, as DuBois saw it, was to help empower black Americans in the wake of the Civil War.  In 1873, Greener became the first African-American faculty member at the University of South Carolina, where he also studied law and was among the law school’s first African-American graduates.  In 1879 he was appointed dean at the Howard University School of Law, leaving in 1881 to open a practice in Washington, DC.

Under President McKinley, Greener held diplomatic appointments in India and Vladivostok, Russia during the Russo-Japanese War.  He wrote for The New National Era, which at the time was edited by Frederick Douglass, and for the National Encyclopedia for American Biography.  His personal acquaintances included DuBois, Douglass, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, Booker T. Washington and Ulysses S. Grant.  

Richard Greener retired from the Foreign Service in 1905, and moved to Chicago to live with his family until his death in 1922.

For more information about this recent acquisition, please contact the Archives collection development staff at archives_collections@harvard.edu.