University of South Carolina’s first black professor honored

The law diploma earned in 1876 by the University of South Carolina’s first black faculty member is now on display at the school. University’s archivist Elizabeth Cassidy West said she considers it the “Holy Grail of university history.”

Mayor Benjamin and USC officials with the Greener documents (photo by Allen Wallace)

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and USC officials with the Greener documents (photo by Allen Wallace)

Richard T. Greener taught undergraduate classes in philosophy, Latin, Greek and law at USC from 1873 through 1877, when the university briefly admitted black students during Reconstruction following the Civil War. Greener also volunteered to serve as the school’s librarian, a position that was vacant at the time.

Greener, who was also the first black student to graduate from Harvard (with honors, in 1870), earned his law degree at USC in 1876.

He was one of only 21 black students to earn a diploma before USC closed completely in 1877 and reopened as an all-white school three years later. Greener was dismissed from USC when the school closed, and he later taught and served as dean at Howard University.

Greener’s diploma and his license to practice law in South Carolina were found in a Chicago home scheduled for demolition. University officials, including West, immediately began working to acquire the documents for display at USC.

USC law diploma earned by Richard Greener (photo provided)

The USC law diploma earned by Richard Greener (photo provided)

“It was coming back, no matter what it took,” Dean of University Libraries Tom McNally said of the diploma.

Greener’s diploma is the first of the 21 earned by black students during Reconstruction that has been acquired by USC. McNally said many of the others intentionally were destroyed by those opposed to integration.

A ceremony unveiling the documents was held Tuesday at the South Caroliniana Library on campus, where Greener worked during his time at USC.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, who also donated money to help acquire the documents, said “I see myself as the legacy of Professor Greener.”

The ceremony was held in front of a portrait of John Hillary Gary, a Confederate officer in the Civil War who graduated from USC. The contrast was not lost on the speakers at the ceremony, including USC President Harris Pastides. Pastides suggested that a portrait of Greener might look good in place of the one of Gary, but then added, “We cannot forget our history, but we can learn from it.”

Portrait of Richard Greener, by artist Larry Lebby (photo provided)

Portrait of Richard Greener, by artist Larry Lebby (photo provided)

Pastides said the portrait of Greener will continue to hang in the President’s office.

“If I’m known for nothing other than hanging this portrait … that’s what I’d like to be known for,” Pastides said.

USC Professor Bobby Donaldson also spoke, sharing a story of Greener returning to the university in his later years, when it again was segregated. Donaldson said Greener was recognized by another black staffer, a custodian who also worked in the library and was known to students as “Literary Bob.” The man rushed to greet Greener, but the professor quickly shushed him, saying “No names.”

With the return of his diploma, which will be on public display at the South Caroliniana Library, Greener’s name will be anything but a secret. Donaldson said Greener and the other black students who attended USC during Reconstruction left a legacy behind.

“Their efforts and their vision laid the groundwork for the change that gripped our nation in subsequent decades. Our archival records show very clearly that the architects of the Modern Civil Rights Movement were astute students of history and understood the goals and ‘deferred dreams’ of the Reconstruction era,” he said.

West said USC, in the midst of commemorating the 50th anniversary of desegregation that came in 1963, “wants to emphasize that African-Americans have always been an integral – though long unrecognized – part of the university.”  An exhibit recognizing those contributions is on display in South Caroliniana Library’s Lumpkin Foyer through Dec. 20.

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