In an 1881 speech at the Harvard Club of New York, Richard T. Greener, Class of 1870, lavished his alma mater with praise: “[Harvard] answered the rising spirit of independence and liberty by abolishing all distinctions founded upon color, blood, and rank,” he told an applauding audience. “There has been but one test for all. Ability, character, and merit — these are the sole passports to her favor.”
Such sentimental remarks may come as something of a surprise coming from the first Black graduate of Harvard College. The University, after all, had not been a friendly place to most who came before him and many who came after — nor, at times, to Greener. Indeed, the Harvard Club of Washington, D.C. would reject his own application four years later for no reason other than his race.
Greener’s rosy recollection of Harvard reflects a series of contradictions that characterized his life, both during and after college. Greener was a light-skinned Black man straddling racial divides in a segregated world. He received life-changing opportunities at a university where he struggled with loneliness and lacked faculty support. And despite his tremendous contributions in activism and public service, he remains relatively unknown to historians today.
Born in Philadelphia, Pa. in 1844, Greener was raised by his mother in Cambridge after his father disappeared to California during the Gold Rush. Although he showed an early aptitude for literature and classics at the Broadway Grammar School, he left school at age 11 to support his family. His odd jobs in Boston put him in the center of what he called “the storm and stress of 1855-62,” when racial justice debates erupted throughout the city. Eloquent abolitionist speakers like Frederick Douglass, Charles Sumner, and Ralph Waldo Emerson impressed Greener with their rhetoric as well as their cause.
Greener asked his employer, jeweler Augustus E. Batchelder, for the opportunity to continue his studies, promising to “do nothing else but study for the next ten years if necessary.” Batchelder agreed to fund Greener’s education — first at the Oberlin Academy preparatory school, where Greener felt snubbed by “colorphobia,” then at Phillips Andover, where he excelled in public speaking.
After Greener graduated from Andover, Batchelder recommended him to Harvard President Thomas Hill as an “experiment” in the education of Black students. Hill, wishing to modernize the university, granted Greener a spot at the College and declared, “I love the young man and admire his spirit.” Greener was the second Black person admitted to Harvard College and the first to matriculate. (The first accepted Black student, Beverly G. Williams, died of tuberculosis mere weeks before the 1847 school year began.) The Civil War had just come to an end, and Greener’s admittance marked the beginning of the Reconstruction era at Harvard.
For the first two centuries of Harvard’s existence, the only times a Black person had stepped onto campus had been to clean the facilities, serve a wealthy white student, or participate in racist polygenic experiments conducted by Louis Aggasiz. When 21-year-old Greener stepped into Harvard Yard in the fall of 1865, however, he was entering as a student who “felt confident [he] could keep up with [his] class.”
During his freshman year, Greener continued to earn recognition for his oratory talent, winning second place in the Lee Prize for excellence in reading aloud. However, he struggled in other subjects. His preparation in math and science had been “far below the eastern standard” at Oberlin and almost completely absent at Andover. Greener also felt isolated from other students in his single room in the College House dormitory, known as where “the poor and struggling lived.” His classmates speculated about his race and background — as he recounted, rumors swirled “that I had escaped from slavery with innumerable difficulties; that I came direct from the cotton field to college; that I was a scout in the Union army; the son of a Rebel general, etc.”
Hill wrote to Batchelder with unfortunate news in the second semester: “[Greener’s] mathematical preparation was so utterly insufficient that he cannot possibly keep up with his class in that department . . . [the faculty] therefore strongly recommend him to withdraw from College and come back in September to join the next freshman class.”
Still determined to graduate, Greener worked with a private mathematics tutor, returned to college, and found his second freshman year much more successful. He wrote for the newly founded Harvard Advocate, joined the Pi Eta society for literature and theater, and became friends with the second Black student in the freshman class. He would go on to win First Bowdoin Prize for a dissertation on Irish land tenure and graduate with honors in 1870.
“I have an undoubted right t0 feel proud of my alma mater, since her green and elms and red brick educational factories were among the first familiar objects of my childhood,” Greener later said. That he should reflect on his undergraduate experience in a uniformly positive light was no doubt enabled by Hill’s progressivism, but it was likely also due to Greener’s fair complexion, which sometimes allowed him to pass as white — an acquaintance once remarked that he was “very little tinged [with] the hated color.”
To most of the outside world, though, he was Black nonetheless, and lacking the financial stability and political connections his classmates possessed, Greener could not immediately pursue his goal of attending law school.
During the brief period of Reconstruction era integration, he taught at the University of South Carolina before eventually earning his law degree there in 1876. In an 1894 essay, he wrote that the so-called “Negro Problem” was actually the “White Problem,” attributing America’s racial divide to “white bigotry” rather than Black inferiority. To begin to mend these inequities and create permanent pathways for all young Black men to access higher education, Greener worked to offer hundreds of full scholarships and provide greater support to under-prepared applicants.
Although Greener’s reputation in his own time rivaled those of Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, today he is best remembered as the first Black student at Harvard College. One hundred and fifty years after his graduation, Greener’s portrait, painted by Stephen E. Coit ’71 and unveiled in 2016, today hangs in Annenberg. His framed figure stands confidently in front of his dorm in Stoughton Hall, forever proud of the green and elms and red brick.
— Staff writer Sophia S. Liang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.