USC to erect statue of first African-American professor

Richard T. Greener was little remembered in Columbia for almost 150 years.

Then, in 2012, Greener’s law degree and law license were found in a Chicago house that was being demolished. And Greener and the University of South Carolina were reunited.

Monday, USC will celebrate Greener, its first African-American professor.

And, next fall, Greener, who taught classics, math and constitutional history at USC from 1873-77, will become the first historical figure to be immortalized with a statue on USC’s downtown Columbia campus.

USC is hosting a free celebration of Greener’s life at 4 p.m. Monday at the Hollings Special Collections Library, hoping to raise money for the statue and an endowment that would pay for future public lectures and programs that “reflect Greener’s pioneering spirit and contributions.”

The school will unveil a 2-foot-tall model of the statue, to be erected next to the Thomas Cooper Library, and display Greener’s USC law degree and S.C. law license, recovered in 2012 by a Chicago demolition worker.

Until recently, Greener’s life had flown under the historical radar. But the discovery of his personal belongings, including those documents, in an abandoned Chicago home shined new light on a lifetime of firsts.

Born in Philadelphia, Greener in 1870 became the first African-American to graduate from Harvard University. Three years later, during the Reconstruction era, he became the first African-American on USC’s faculty.

Greener stayed busy.

While teaching at USC, he also worked in the South Caroliniana Library. He became the first librarian to implement a modern catalog system for USC’s then-27,000 volumes, which were in disarray after the Civil War.

Active in the Republican Party, Greener also attended USC’s law school, becoming one of its first black graduates. He was admitted to the S.C. Bar in 1876.

But Greener’s time at USC was cut short when, in 1877, Wade Hampton became governor and white Democrats reclaimed control of state government. The state shut down USC, whose student body had become predominately African-American, and reopened it in 1880 as an all-white school.

African-American students were not allowed to return until 1963.

“Several years ago, students in a class in the College of Education, upon learning about Richard T. Greener, asked why they hadn’t heard of him and why there wasn’t something commemorating him on campus,” said Christian Anderson, a USC education professor who has helped lead efforts to recognize Greener. “Greener was such an important figure during his tenure here, and this statue will help our community not just recognize him, but learn more about him and the Reconstruction era.”

After leaving USC, Greener went on to practice law, become the dean of Howard University’s law school and was a U.S. diplomat to Vladivostok, Russia.

Greener’s USC sculpture will cost $125,000. The total project, including the surrounding plaza, is projected to cost about $225,000. It will be paid for with private gifts.

Greener’s memorial will be the latest in something of a statue boom at USC.

▪ In September 2015, the school unveiled a bronze sculpture of George Rogers, USC’s only Heisman Trophy winner, outside Williams-Brice Stadium, south of downtown Columbia.

▪ Last September, USC trustees approved spending nearly $1 million to erect a bronze, 15- to 18-foot-tall Gamecock to accompany Rogers’ statue.

▪ Two months later, trustees approved spending $85,000 to put a bronze, life-sized statue of the school’s beloved Cocky mascot on campus.

Until recently, USC’s campus mostly has been void of such structures, save for “The Torchbearer,” a conceptual figure outside USC’s education college, and the Maxcy Monument, a granite and marble obelisk in the center of USC’s historic Horseshoe.

Avery G. Wilks: 803-771-8362, @averygwilks