Richard Theodore Greener, a pioneering African-American scholar who made significant contributions in elocution, philosophy, law, and classical studies during the Reconstruction era. He achieved the remarkable feat of becoming the first Black graduate of Harvard College in 1870.  

He also graduated from the University of South Carolina’s law school and became the institution’s first Black professor, having briefly served as an associate editor for Frederick Douglass’s newspaper, the New National Era in the year 1873. 

In 1875, Greener broke new ground by becoming the first African American elected to the American Philological Association, the foremost academic society for classical studies in North America. He was later admitted to practice law in the Supreme Court of South Carolina and subsequently to the Bar of the District of Columbia in 1877. He also served as the dean of the Howard University School of Law. 

Greener’s diplomatic career began in 1898 when he was appointed as America’s first Black diplomat to a white country, serving in Vladivostok, Russia. He also represented the United States during the Russo-Japanese War but left the diplomatic service in 1905. His contributions during the Boxer War and the Shansi famine were recognized by the Chinese government in 1902. 

Throughout his career, He received numerous honors. Monrovia College in Liberia awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Law in 1882, and Howard University followed suit in 1907. His legacy endures through annual scholarships granted by Phillips Academy and the University of South Carolina in his name. In 2018, both institutions honored him more. Phillips Academy named a central quadrangle after him, and the University of South Carolina erected a statue in his honor. 

Richard Theodore Greener was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1844, and moved with his family to Boston in 1853. The family faced lot of challenges, including the absence of his  father, who left for the California gold rush and never returned. Despite financial hardships, Greener pursued his education fervently. He attended meetings and lectures by anti-slavery and women’s rights activists, gaining access to private libraries through these connections. 

In 1862, Greener attended Oberlin College’s Preparatory Department, supported by his then employer called August Batchelde. He later completed his education at Phillips Academy, graduating in 1865, and entered Harvard College, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1870. His admission to Harvard was seen as an experiment by the administration, paving the way for future Black students. While at Harvard, Greener won the Bowdoin Prize for elocution twice, a testament to his oratory skills. 

After Harvard, Greener served as the principal at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia and later at Sumner High School in Washington, D.C. In 1873, and became a professor at the University of South Carolina, where he was the first African-American faculty member. His work there included reorganizing the university library and teaching Latin, Greek, international law, and U.S. constitutional law. 

Greener’s legal career flourished as he was admitted to practice law in South Carolina and the District of Columbia. He served as dean of Howard University School of Law and worked on several notable legal cases. Greener was also active in public service, representing South Carolina in the Union League of America and serving as president of the South Carolina Republican Association in 1887. 



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *