Published on February 9th, 2014 | by Millennium Magazine Staff0
USC Acquires Historical Documents of Black Scholar
Pictured above from left: Harris Pastides, President, University of South Carolina; Steve Benjamin, Mayor, Columbia Mayor; Elizabeth Cassidy West, USC Archivist and Bobby Donaldson, a history and African-American Studies Professor.
At an unveiling ceremony held at the South Caroliniana Library on the campus of the University of South Carolina in Columbia, South Carolina great steps were taken to reclaim a part of history that had been buried under decades of segregation and racial discrimination.
A law degree earned in 1876 by the University’s first African American faculty member and his license to practice law issued by the South Carolina Supreme Court in 1877 are now on display at the state’s flagship institution of higher learning.
How did this remarkable find come to be? In 2009 just moments before an abandoned Chicago building was scheduled to be demolished the head of a demolition crew stumbled upon an old steamer trunk stored in the attic. Instead of destroying the trunk he took its contents consisting of documents and old books to a rare book dealer where it was discovered that they were the possessions of Richard T. Greener, a gifted intellectual devoted to racial equality, who in his day rivaled the prominence of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois and Frederick Douglas.
He was the first African American to graduate from Harvard University with honors in 1870. In addition to Greener’s diploma from Harvard and law diploma and law license from the University of South Carolina, the trunk contained other documents written by Greener in Latin and Russian. The Greener find is particularly noteworthy given that there is a dearth of historical documents evidencing the achievements of African Americans at the University of South Carolina during Reconstruction. In many instances such Reconstruction documents were purposely destroyed to remove any trace of Black achievement.
In commenting on the intentional eradication of Reconstruction documents University Archivist Elizabeth Cassidy West said, “It was considered a stain on the university to record that blacks had attended the school. Now we look back on it, and we can say that it was really groundbreaking for a state-supported school at that time to have black faculty, a black trustee and black students.”
The Greener discovery was exciting news for officials of the University who seized upon the opportunity to obtain missing pieces of its history. The find offered a glimpse into the accomplishments of one of the nation’s leading commentators of the day on race relations. According to Bobby Donaldson, a USC history and African American Studies professor, “The hiring of an African American professor and the admission of black students – less than a decade after the end of slavery – were part of an extraordinary and daring experiment.”
Steve Benjamin, Mayor of the City of Columbia and Alumnus of the University of South Carolina spearheaded the effort to raise private funds to acquire Greener’s law diploma and law license. As the first African American Mayor of the City of Columbia, Benjamin said, “I see myself as the legacy of Professor Greener.”
Greener taught philosophy, Greek and Latin, mathematics and constitutional law from 1873 to 1877 when the University briefly admitted Black students during Reconstruction following the Civil War. He was also the campus’ first African American librarian. After leaving the University Greener was appointed Dean of Howard University’s Law Department in Washington, D.C. in 1879. Under the administrations of Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt he was a prominent figure in national and international affairs serving as United Consul to Bombay, India and United States Commercial Agent to Vladivostok, Russia, the first American to hold that post. In 1902 the Chinese Government decorated him with the Order of Double Dragon for his service in the Boxer War and assistance to Shansi famine sufferers.
University Archivist Elizabeth Cassidy West said USC, in the wake of commemorating the 50th anniversary of desegregation at the institution that came in 1963, “Wants to emphasize that African-Americans have always been an integral – though long unrecognized – part of the University.”