From Reconstruction to Jim Crow: A Pioneering Black Scholar and Activist in a Struggle for Identity and Impact

The heated arguments, protests and acts of violence related to the fate of statues honoring the Confederate cause during the Civil War are now well known. Decisions to move those memorials, remove them, or leave them in place are increasingly contentious and provocative throughout the South.  In Columbia, South Carolina, however, a different response is afoot:  Rather than focus on monuments erected long ago, why not add some new ones to celebrate significant contributors on the positive side of the struggle for racial equality? 

One of the first of these will happen later this year when a statue of Richard T. Greener (1844-1922) is installed in a prominent location on the campus of the University of South Carolina. The idea for that statue sparked my interest in the life of the scholar and activist who was the first black graduate of Harvard College, the first black professor at a southern university, the first black U.S. diplomat to a majority white country (Russia), a law school dean, and much more.  Graduate students in a College of Education history class I taught were stumped as to why Greener was relatively unknown on their University of South Carolina campus—the very place he arrived in 1873 as that institution’s first African American professor.  Together, we decided to try to change that.  After five years of committee meetings, campus events, and a design competition, University of South Carolina trustees approved plans for a memorial sculpture to a man who tirelessly promoted full and equal rights across racial boundaries and whose pioneering accomplishments made him a significant role model.

Research undertaken to demonstrate the rationale for a memorial to Richard T. Greener soon went well beyond his contributions in South Carolina.  Born in Philadelphia, he lived and worked in five other states and overseas.  His writing and public lectures for the cause of racial equality reached far and wide; and his “stumping” for liberal-minded political candidates extended that reach. After several years of working with the Richard Greener Memorial Planning Committee, I realized that a full scale biography of this important and fascinating individual would be a natural next step.

I also quickly realized that Greener, renowned in his day, had died in near obscurity after a life peppered with as much disappointment as success. His light skin might sometimes open doors with white associates, but it also sometimes closed them among skeptical black citizens. His ability to succeed in business, law, education, and government rarely lasted beyond the tenure of a friendly professional mentor, a liberal politician, or a supportive governing board. When Reconstruction-era integration ended at the University of South Carolina, Greener was out. New York mayor W.R. Grace and his board at the U.S. Grant Monument Association named Greener their chief administrative executive, as well as a trustee; but when the board experienced in-fighting and turnover seven years later, Greener was out. After President McKinley, who had appointed him a diplomat to Russia, was assassinated and succeeded by Theodore Roosevelt, Greener was out. Greener’s marriage faltered. His wife and five children stayed behind during his six years in Russia, and they soon changed their names and slipped across the color line to become white citizens with a bit of Spanish heritage. Greener never saw them again.

While researching and writing the book that chronicles Greener’s life through times of Civil War, Reconstruction, and backslide into Jim Crow segregation, I discovered two Richard Greeners. One was a street-smart kid who grew into an assertive black activist and used his speaking and writing skills to attempt to influence the course of racial justice and equal rights across color lines.  The other was a highly educated intellectual, well versed in law and literature, who knew that his best chance for meaningful professional work was through the advantages conferred by his light skin and his network of white friends and contacts. These realities prompted my own larger learning about not only one man’s life, but also the social and political contexts in which he lived it. I found, for example:

  • Skin color is a nuanced concept that has always somewhere, somehow mattered. Then as now, it was possible to be both too light for the blacks and too dark for the whites.
  • The Progressive Era (approx.. 1890-1920) was a time of crucial reforms in curbing social injustices, governmental abuses, unfair industrial practices, and urban blight. Yet, national and local political leaders who boasted of reform accomplishments failed to address those involving equality across the races. Segregation, lynchings, and social and economic discrimination actually expanded during those “progressive” times.
  • A Harvard College education, followed by a law school diploma, could not manage to confer upon an African American the professional potential reserved for white citizens in similar circumstances.  While Greener’s demonstrated success at Harvard was a groundbreaking occurrence, the reality that even a fine education could not open doors for all races may have made an even more important point.
  • Reconstruction history is trending. The post-Civil War years of enforced opportunities for black citizens have long been considered, especially in the South, a contentious and divisive time to forget.  More recently, however, historians have begun to remind us that this was a time of passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Constitutional amendments, the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and many local laws that initiated (if sometimes only briefly) biracial public schools, equitable taxation, and equal treatment in public transportation and accommodations. From museum exhibits to history courses, Reconstruction is finally enjoying some celebration.
  •  Some mysteries are never solved.  In 2012, Richard Greener was the subject of a national news story when a trunk of his belongings surfaced in Chicago. Among the items in it were his 1870 Harvard College diploma, his 1876 University of South Carolina Law School diploma, his license to practice law, and his Scottish Rite Masonic certificate—all previously thought to be lost when he returned from Russia in 1906 and arrived in San Francisco just in time for that famous earthquake. A member of a clean-out crew found the trunk in an abandoned building about to be demolished in Chicago, the city where Greener lived the last 15 years of his life.  But how did his trunk end up six miles from anywhere he ever resided? 

Katherine Reynolds Chaddock is the author of a number of biographies and histories concerning US higher education, including: Visions and Vanities: John Andrew Rice of Black Mountain College and The Multi-Talented Mr. Erskine: Shaping Mass Culture Through Great Books and Fine Music. Her latest book, Uncompromising Activist: Richard Greener, First Black Graduate of Harvard College, is available now.