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Richard T. Greener: A man of firsts is reintroduced to the world


The Richard T. Greener documents are now on display at South Caroliniana Library through Saturday, November 9.

An unprecedented announcement regarding recently discovered Richard T. Greener documents will be made during a special event at the South Caroliniana Library at noon on Tuesday, October 15. At that time, the University will be presented with Greener's USC School of Law diploma and his license to practice law in South Carolina.

This October marks the 140th anniversary of Greener's arrival at the University of South Carolina. Greener (1844 - 1922) was the first African-American faculty member at USC and its first African-American librarian. Before coming to South Carolina, he was the first African-American graduate of Harvard University; upon leaving South Carolina, he practiced law, was dean of Howard University Law School and served as a U.S. diplomat in Russia.

A gifted intellectual devoted to racial equality, Greener’s importance to the University continues to be discovered.


Partnering with USC Libraries to acquire the Richard T. Greener Diploma:

  • The Honorable Stephen K. Benjamin and the Honorable DeAndrea Gist Benjamin
  • Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity/Alpha Iota Boule
  • USC School of Law

“Because he taught at USC from 1873 to 1877, when the University was integrated during the era of Reconstruction, Greener’s legacy is not as well-known as it might have been,” said University Archivist Elizabeth Cassidy West. “Most of the papers and documents related to African Americans were destroyed after Reconstruction, and so there are several gaps in Greener’s biography. It was a very brief but very important time, for both the University and the African-American community. It was unheard of to have an African-American professor in a Southern university during that period, and it would be decades before another black professor would be appointed at USC.”

This is what we do know about Greener (shown here in a portrait by Larry Lebby).

After leaving school at the age of 14 to go to work to support his mother and siblings, Greener did not forget his educational goals. One of his employers, famous teacher and reformer Franklin B. Sanborn, used his influence to get Greener accepted into Oberlin College, the first American college to admit blacks. With the goal of attending Harvard University, he prepared for the strenuous curriculum for several years and entered Harvard in 1865 when he was 21. He went on to win two of Harvard’s prestigious Bowdoin Prizes: one for elocution and the other for writing. He graduated in 1870, becoming Harvard’s first African-American graduate.

Greener became principal of the Male Department at Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth, which later became Cheyney University, and then principal of the Sumner High School in Washington, D.C. He also was a staff member of The New National Era, then edited by abolitionist Frederick Douglass. He was also associate editor of the National Encyclopedia of American Biography.

In late 1873, Greener become a professor of philosophy at USC and assisted in the departments of Latin and Greek, mathematics, and constitutional history. In addition to teaching, Greener was the campus’ first African-American librarian. He helped reorganize and catalog the library's holdings, which were in disarray after the Civil War. In 1875, he became the first African American to be elected a member of the American Philological Association, the principal learned society for classical studies in North America.

Greener studied at the USC School of Law, receiving his law degree and graduating with honors as one of the school’s first African-American graduates in 1876.  He was admitted to the South Carolina Bar in 1876 and the District of Columbia bar the next year.

During this time, Greener married and had several children, including a daughter, Belle da Costa Greene. She was to later organize the famous Pierpont Morgan Library collection and become well-known in New York and the art world. 

In 1879, Greener was appointed Dean of Howard University's Law Department. After leaving Howard in 1881, he opened a private law practice in Washington. During Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt's administrations, Greener was a prominent figure in national and international affairs. He became first secretary of New York's Grant Memorial Association, and assisted in raising funds to finance Grant's Tomb.

In 1898, he was appointed United Consul to Bombay India, then transferred to Vladivostok, Russia, becoming the first American to hold that post. In 1902, the Chinese Government decorated him with the Order of Double Dragon for his service to the Boxer War and assistance to Shansi famine sufferers.

After retiring in 1906 and until his death in 1922, Greener lived in Chicago, joined the Harvard Club, and continued to write and speak about his life and times.