Richard Greener, First Black Graduate of Harvard College

By Michael David Cohen | Black Perspectives

In 1911, Richard Greener was introduced to an audience as “‘the first colored graduate of Harvard,’ ‘ex-Consul to Russia,’ and ‘the most learned man the Negro race has produced’” (156). Yet a century later, Katherine Reynolds Chaddock observes in Uncompromising Activist: Richard Greener, First Black Graduate of Harvard College, few have heard of him. Drawing on an impressive range of personal papers and periodicals, she uncovers a life marked by insights into what Greener called “‘that damnable American ghost,’” race (129).

This is more than a biography. A historian at the University of South Carolina, Chaddock specializes in the history of education in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It shows. Each chapter, though defined by a period of Greener’s life, begins or soon interjects with a vivid picture of the society and institutions in which he lived and worked. “How Greener would fit into the changing landscape of [Black] activism” emerges as a central theme (119). Through his eyes, as he travels around the United States, we learn the history of race in America.

Readers drawn by the celebratory title should prepare for a letdown of sorts. Greener’s achievements do deserve and receive praise. But Chaddock uses them to draw a contrast with the period. This book chronicles the opportunities and the failures of Reconstruction. Amid successful white resistance to Black freedom, Greener “could not have experienced a worse time to be an eloquent and determined advocate for racial uplift” (5).

Twelve chapters divide roughly into four parts: Greener’s education, his academic career, his political work, and his diplomatic post and its aftermath. Chapters 1 to 3 follow him from birth through college. Born in Philadelphia in 1844 and raised in Cambridge, Mass., he studied at schools including Ohio’s Oberlin College and Cambridge’s Harvard. He became Harvard’s first Black student when he arrived there in 1865.

From the beginning, Greener developed a knack for meeting prominent Americans and for showing up on the field of racial action. As a boy he caught glimpses of Charles Sumner and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. At age sixteen he helped protect Wendell Phillips from a mob at a Boston antislavery meeting whose speakers also included Frederick Douglass. In college he impressed Senator Sumner with his writing in the Harvard Advocateand began a long friendship.

More at Black Perspectives

scroll to top