Larger than life, Richard T. Greener

Remembering the Days podcast — episode 20

Richard T. Greener's career was one of 'firsts' but they don't define his career. The University of South Carolina's first Black professor had a remarkably varied career, from academics and law to international diplomacy and domestic advocacy. Little wonder there is a statue in his honor beside the campus' main library.


Next time you have an opportunity to visit the University of South Carolina campus, walk up to the front of the Thomas Cooper Library, stand there for a moment with the reflecting pool at your back and look a ways off to your left.

You’ll see a 9-foot-tall bronze statue of a male professor carrying a book satchel and wearing a 19th-century tailored waistcoat. This larger-than-life monument honors an individual whose accomplishments were, well, larger than life.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re taking a closer look at Richard T. Greener, a professor and librarian who served at the University of South Carolina nearly 150 years ago. When you consider the full arc of Greener’s life, I think you’ll have a better understanding why there’s now a statue in his honor on campus.

Katherine Chaddock: “I used to just, you know, use his name and say, ‘Then there was this guy, Richard Greener, who during Reconstruction became our first Black faculty member, was only here for a little over three years, etc., etc.’ So I just passed it by. The students were very interested and then I had to learn more.”

That’s Katherine Chaddock, a now retired professor in the College of Education who told her students about Greener years ago without fully understanding who he was. When the students wanted to know more, Chaddock started to dig. She’s written biographies about several individuals over the years, and it didn’t take long for her to realize that writing the life story of Richard T. Greener would be a worthy project.

Greener was born in 1844 in Philadelphia and 26 years later, in 1870, he became the first African American to graduate from Harvard College. Wealthy white abolitionists had previously taken note of his youthful intelligence and paid for his preparatory education at Oberlin and Philips Andover.

At the tender age of 29, Greener was invited to become a professor of moral philosophy at the University of South Carolina. Now this was 1873 when the United States was going through its Reconstruction after the tumultuous Civil War. What had been the whites-only South Carolina College was transformed into the University of South Carolina where white and Black students were welcomed. South Carolina was the only public university in the South to integrate during the Reconstruction Era.

So, the university was for the first time in its history admitting Black students and for the first time had a Black professor, Richard T. Greener. But that wasn’t his only claim to fame.

Katherine Chaddock: "He was in between the great successes of the abolitionists [00:04:30] and the later successes of the civil rights NAACP folks. But in between, somebody had to keep that spark alive as best they could. And he did an amazing job at keeping that spark for, you know, equal rights, equal treatment, et cetera, of Black citizens. One way he did that was by demonstrating that he was a pretty impressive, smart Black man, [00:05:00] amazingly talented, spoke four languages. He also was a wonderful writer and an eloquent speaker. And he spoke a lot on the rights of Black people, but also on their accomplishments."

Greener was a forceful advocate for Black people in the United States, most of whom had been born into slavery and had very limited opportunities for advancement after the Civil War.

While Greener was a professor at South Carolina, he lived in what’s now Lieber College on the Horseshoe, and he took on the task of organizing the holdings of the library — what’s now the South Caroliniana Library which had fallen into disrepair during the Civil War. Greener is the one who acquired and put on display a collection of busts of famous people in the library’s reading room. The library is undergoing major renovations now, but when it reopens next year, you’ll be able to see those original busts, which include likenesses of Thomas Jefferson, John C. Calhoun and the Greek orators Cicero and Demosthenes.

Greener also earned a law degree at South Carolina, becoming one of the first African Americans to do so, and then he was forced to leave the university in 1877. That was the year Reconstruction came to an end, and the university was closed for a couple of years before reopening as a whites-only institution again in 1880. All across the South at that time, Jim Crow segregationist politics and policies were on the rise.

Greener persevered and opened a law practice near Washington, D.C. He then became a professor and acting dean of the law school at Howard University and later was the administrator of the Grant Monument Association, a campaign to build a massive memorial for the late President Ulysses S. Grant.

Greener then became America’s first Black commercial agent in the U.S. State Department to serve in a white majority country — in this case Vladivostok, Russia. Greener served with distinction there and returned to the United States several years later where he continued to advocate for the rights of African Americans. He participated in early organizing sessions of what would become the NAACP and gave speeches across the country.

Nearly 30 years after leaving campus, Greener returned to visit the University of South Carolina, stopping in at the old library. This was around 1906 when Black visitors were not welcomed on campus, but Greener’s light-skinned features and graying hair kept anyone from realizing that standing before them was the institution’s first Black professor. It kind of makes me wonder what might have happened to Greener if the university and the rest of South Carolina had not fallen back into segregation after Reconstruction.

Katherine Chaddock: "I think he would have stayed. I think he would have aspired to be something like the dean of the law school here. He would have definitely aspired for higher and higher positions, perhaps in the state government if Reconstruction hadn't sort of changed everything and back to segregated and white. And ultimately, maybe he would have stayed in South Carolina another 10 years, I'm guessing, moved up to Washington and looked for some kind of appointment, either in the legal realm, a judgeship or perhaps diplomatic."

Katherine Chaddock says South Carolina’s first Black professor, even though his time here was cut short because of racial politics, represented a model for the Black students he helped to educate as well as for future generations. You can learn more about Greener from Chaddock’s book titled “Uncompromising Activist: Richard Greener.”

This episode is sponsored by the UofSC Alumni Association, whose Black Alumni Council has awarded the Richard T. Greener Scholarship to a student every year since 1983.

For the University of South Carolina, I’m Chris Horn. See you next time on Remembering the Days where we’ll do a little stargazing at the Melton Observatory. So long for now.

Share this Story! Let friends in your social network know what you are reading about