USC’s first African-American professor: ‘He wanted to be seen as an American who succeeds’

cclick@thestate.comOctober 15, 2013 

For more than a century, the extraordinary life of Richard T. Greener, USC’s first African-American professor and law school graduate, was buried along with any public acknowledgement of the other blacks who had walked the college Horseshoe during Reconstruction.

The years between 1873 and 1877 were known to white South Carolinians as the years of the “radical university,” best dismissed as a grievous anomaly that was righted with the end of federal oversight and the re-establishment of South Carolina’s white political establishment.

Now with Tuesday’s unveiling of Greener’s 1876 South Carolina law diploma and his S.C. law license, the university is reclaiming history that was submerged by decades of segregation and the long-held belief that the University of South Carolina was reserved only for the education of white Southerners.

The 2009 discovery of the documents in an abandoned Chicago house, and the university’s acquisition of the documents, reads like a literary thriller and likely would have pleased Greener, a Harvard-educated intellectual who devoted his life to the progress of African-Americans. “It brings attention to this wonderful, positive four years sandwiched between these decades of hardship,” said Elizabeth West, a university archivist.

West decided in the mid-1990s that she would find one of the Reconstruction-era diplomas before she ended her career, calling those year “the closest thing to equality” that South Carolina blacks would experience until 1963, when the university fully integrated.

West traveled to Chicago last year with USC history professor Bobby Donaldson to examine the documents, which were for sale by the head of the demolition crew who had discovered them.

“When I unrolled it and saw that red university seal, I just had a thrill — a thrill! — holding what I wanted for so long,” said West, who described the diploma as the “Holy Grail” of documents from that period. Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, a USC alumnus, assisted in raising private funds to purchase the two documents.

The Philadelphia-born Greener arrived on campus in 1873, living in Lieber College, and began implementing his vision of a post-war society. He taught philosophy, Greek, and Latin, and once he obtained his South Carolina law degree, he also taught his students the law.

“What he really wanted was for blacks to be on equal footing,” said Michael Mounter, who wrote a 570-page dissertation on Greener to earn a Ph.D. in U.S. history from USC in 2002. “He was more in the tradition of abolitionists before the Civil War. His big fight was to be treated as a full-fledged American citizen. He did not want to be seen as a black man who succeeds. He wanted to be seen as an American who succeeds.”

Many of the students who were admitted to the Reconstruction-era college were free blacks with limited education or newly freed slaves, Mounter said. But Greener had an idealistic vision of what he could accomplish. Greener and fellow professor William Main Jr. photographed and documented the university’s buildings in a series of 17 images that remain as the definitive description of the post-war campus. “He worked so hard when he was at the university and he had a tough task,” said Mounter, now an archivist and historian for USC’s Law School library. “There was a lot of propaganda at the time from people who didn’t want the university integrated, saying there was only blacks and a few northern whites but that wasn’t true.” They took classes together and Greener in one document claimed they ate together, a social situation unthinkable before the war.

For many white ex-Confederates, the idea of black men matriculating at the college - and black women admitted in the newly established Normal School - was deplorable and best forgotten. Once Democrats under former Confederate hero and newly elected Gov. Wade Hampton reasserted themselves in 1876, the university was closed in 1877. It reopened in 1880 for a time as an agricultural college.

“The faculty was strong and were determined to succeed as an integrated university,” Mounter said. “It wasn’t as if they failed to make the university work; it was the political leadership and the political situation that failed them.” During his time in South Carolina, Greener worked in Republican politics, making speeches at rallies that often put his personal safety in jeopardy.

In his resignation letter written in Greener’s elegant hand, Greener sought a recommendation, noting “no charges of insufficiency or lack of duty having been alleged against me during the nearly four years of my connection to the university.” Professor Donaldson believes he got that recommendation from Gov. Hampton.

Greener went on to a distinguished law and public service career in Washington, New York and Vladivostok, Russia. He would never again live in South Carolina, and Mounter believes that was a lifelong regret.

“I don’t think any of that work satisfied him as much as what he did in South Carolina,” Mounter said. Greener died in 1922.

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