On the South Side of Chicago, a piece of black history was found by contractor Rufus McDonald, inside the attic of a home that was set to be demolished in 2009. Inside the abandoned house at 75th and Sagamon was a diploma dated back in 1870, with photos and papers of Mr. Richard Theodore Greener, Harvard’s first black graduate. Also found among the items was proof of a friendship between Greener and President Ulysses S. Grant.
Although the finder of the trunk was encouraged to discard the water-damaged documents, his better judgment and a copy of the 1853 book Autographs for Freedom, made him think twice.
Vandals had taken everything thought to be of worth inside the unlocked unit, even the copper piping. What they didn’t realize was the most valuable item was in the attic, in an old trunk. It’s unknown as to how the papers got to the Englewood home. They were thought to be destroyed by a San Francisco earthquake in 1906. Greener was visiting the area at that time and it was assumed the paperwork was with him.
Born to a slave in January, 1844, Richard Greener attended school, but dropped out at age 14 to work as a Boston hotel porter. He was taken in by two white businessmen, who helped to further his education and helped him apply to Harvard in 1865. He was accepted into the School of Foreign Science and won top awards in speaking and writing at the college. In 1873, Greener became the first black professor at the University of South Carolina. His tenure was cut short during a rally when an assassination attempt was made on his life. He later accepted another job in education, becoming the Dean of Howard University’s Law School.