The University of South Carolina will unveils a new statue Wednesday honoring the accomplishments of its first African-American faculty member.
Richard T. Greener was hired by the school just three years after graduating from Harvard University in 1870. “He was important to the history of higher education,” USC Associate Higher Education Professor Dr. Christian Anderson said. South Carolina was the only public university in the South to desegregate immediately after the Civil War. It was the only one to hire an African-American professor during Reconstruction (1865-1877).
“That alone is significant, but he also came to make enormous contributions to the University,” Anderson said.
The 4 p.m. unveiling Wednesday will be outside the school’s Thomas Cooper Library.
Greener taught moral and mental philosophy, Latin and Greek. He also advocated for student access and lobbied the legislature for 124 African-American student scholarships. “He realized these students have not had the educational opportunities to be prepared for university life, so he created and taught a sub-freshman class, a preparatory year of schooling, so that they would be ready for their freshman year,” Anderson said.
After his first year with the University, Greener assumed the duties of librarian after his predecessor resigned.
“He reorganized the library,” Anderson said. “He gave it its first modern catalog. It was something of a mess after the Civil War. They didn’t know where a lot of the books even were. A lot of the books were misfiled because the previous librarian didn’t know Latin, Greek and French like he did. He also advocated to the legislature to get money for repairs.”
And his work didn’t stop with teaching or managing the library.
“On top of all this, I’m not sure how he had only 24 hours in a day, he attended the law school and graduated from the law school,” Anderson said.
Greener’s law school diploma and law license are the only diplomas the University library has in its collection dating from the Reconstruction era. They were returned to the school after their discovery inside a steamer trunk in a Chicago building scheduled for demolition six years ago.
Governor Wade Hampton closed the school in 1877 due to budget issues and a white supremacist return to control of the legislature. While most faculty members appealed to the legislature for back pay, Anderson said Greener’s name was left off the legislation.
“They managed to strike his name as one last indignity against the first black professor,” Anderson said. “Despite all odds he persisted. He worked hard. he made significant contributions to the campus. He also advocated for civil rights in speaking engagements.”
After leaving Columbia in 1877, Greener went on to become the Dean of Howard University Law School and eventually the first African-American diplomat assigned to a primarily white country in Vladivostok, Russia. After his foreign service, Greener spent his final years in Chicago and eventually died in 1922.
“He’s lived in all these places but the rest of this life he called himself a South Carolinian. There was something about that period that was meaningful to him,” Anderson said.
Anderson said, despite all of Greener’s accomplishments, he questions “the great ‘what-if?'”
“What if he’d been able to carry out his career here? What if he’d been able to stay for another number of years or decades? What might he have accomplished or what might the University had looked like with him persisting and continuing as a desegregated post-Civil War campus in the South?” Anderson asked.
Anderson said the idea for the Greener statue was born in a USC classroom. In the fall of 2010, his colleague, professor Katherine Chaddock mentioned a plaque on Harvard’s campus commemorating Greener and several students asked why there wasn’t anything similar at USC.
“It was very informal at first and then we turned it into a committee,” he said.
Those same three students who raised the question in class that day will lift the cloth Wednesday unveiling the statue.
“We’ve asked those three to be the ones that help pull the veil down to unveil and then bring it full circle, this project that started, really, because of them,” Anderson said.
As that veil is lifted Wednesday, Anderson said he will recall the reaction of three young African American women who watched the installation of the statue Saturday.
“One of them happened to know quite a lot about Greener and she was telling her two companions about him and the one student standing next to her, her eyes just got bigger and bigger. And then she just exclaimed, ‘You put him right here? You put him right here next to the library? You put this black professor right here next to the library where everyone will see him?'” Anderson described. “That one student, seeing how much that representation mattered, that’s what will be going through my head on Wednesday, is ‘what else will this mean to other people?'”
“He was important. What he did was important and what he represented was important. This era of Reconstruction at the University was important and it’s time that we really recognize it and learn more about it,” he said.
The statue is installed next to Thomas Cooper Library. Click here for more information.
Click here for more information on Chaddock’s book on Greener, Uncompromising Activist.