In 1870 Greener graduated with honors, earning the distinction of being the first African American to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard.
Teacher, diplomat. Born on January 30, 1844, in Philadelphia, Greener was the son of Richard Wesley Greener and Mary Ann Le Brune. Raised from the age of ten in Boston, Greener attended the Broadway Grammar School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, until he was fourteen, when he dropped out to help support his family. With support from two of his employers, Greener attended the preparatory school at Oberlin College in Ohio from 1862 to 1864 and Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, from 1864 to 1865. In 1865 Greener was admitted to Harvard University as an experiment in the education of African Americans. In 1870 Greener graduated with honors, earning the distinction of being the first African American to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard.
After teaching in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., Greener accepted the professorship of mental and moral philosophy at the recently integrated University of South Carolina in October 1873, becoming its first black faculty member. In addition to instructing in philosophy, Latin, Greek, and law, Greener taught students in the preparatory school. He gave the university’s commencement address in 1874, and served as university librarian for six months in 1875. He earned a law degree from the University of South Carolina in 1876 and was admitted to practice law in the South Carolina Supreme Court. At the request of the Republican Party, Greener spoke at campaign rallies in the Third Congressional District of South Carolina in the 1876 election. On September 24, 1874, he married Genevieve Ida Fleet of Washington, D.C. The couple had seven children, two of whom died in infancy.
When the university was closed in June 1877 by the newly elected Democratic regime, Greener resigned his professorship and moved to Washington, D.C., where he took a position as a clerk in the U.S. Treasury Department. He served as dean of the Howard Law School from 1879 to 1880 and opened a law practice. His most memorable legal case was his defense of Johnson Chesnut Whittaker, a black cadet from South Carolina, who was court-martialed by the U.S. Military Academy in 1881. From 1885 to 1892, Greener served as secretary of the Grant Monument Association and from 1885 to 1890 as a civil service examiner in New York City. In the 1896 presidential election, he served as the head of the “colored men’s bureau” of the Republican National Committee in Chicago. In recognition of his service on behalf of the Republican Party, he was appointed as the U.S. commercial agent in Vladivostok, Russia in 1898, a position he held until 1905.
Greener returned to the United States in 1906 and settled in Chicago. He occasionally lectured on his career for the remainder of his life, including on visits to South Carolina in 1906 and 1907. During his 1907 trip to South Carolina, Greener visited Allen University, Benedict College, and South Carolina State College. Although Greener lived in the state for only three and a half years, he considered himself a South Carolinian in exile after 1877. He died in Chicago on May 2, 1922.
Mounter, Michael Robert. “Richard Theodore Greener and the African American Individual in a Black and White World.” In At Freedom’s Door: African American Founding Fathers and Lawyers in Reconstruction South Carolina, edited by James Lowell Underwood and W. Lewis Burke. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.