Richard Theodore Greener, Black Educator Hall of Fame

E’ry day this month, the Center for Black Educator Development, in partnership with, will highlight a Black Educator Hall of Famer.

But, don’t forget, e’ry month is Black History Month. February is just the Blackest.

Today, our featured Black Educator is Richard Theodore Greener.

Richard Theodore Greener was born in Philadelphia, PA, on January 30, 1844. He was a pioneering educator and scholar. Whereas Dr. W.E.B. Dubois was the first African American to graduate with a doctorate from Harvard, Greener was the first African American to graduate from Harvard. When he was nine, his family moved from Philadelphia to Cambridge, MA. Greener dropped out of school at age 11 to help support the family after his father went to seek fortune in the California Gold Rush and never returned. Yet his brilliance was seen and invested in.

Augustus Batchelder, a jeweler, funded his education at Ohio’s Oberlin Academy and, later, the prestigious Philips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Greener entered Harvard at age 21. Greener said of Harvard in a speech, “[Harvard] answered the rising spirit of independence and liberty by abolishing all distinctions founded upon color, blood, and rank.”

He said this despite saying in the same speech that white students spread rumors, “that I had escaped from slavery with innumerable difficulties; that I came direct from the cotton field to college; that I was a scout in the Union army; the son of a Rebel general, etc.”

Greener excelled at Harvard inside and outside the classroom. He graduated with honors in 1870.

He returned to Philadelphia after graduation and succeeded Octavious Catto when appointed as principal of the Male Department at Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth, which later became Cheyney University. Greener served for two years, next becoming principal of Sumner High School in Washington, D.C., for one year.

Greener took his talents to higher education, a professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy at South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina), where he also served as librarian and taught Greek, mathematics, and constitutional law. He was the youngest and first Black faculty member at the university. While at the university, Greener attended law school, graduated in 1876, and was admitted to the South Carolina Bar Association. The policy of allowing Black people to attend law school shortly changed after that.

After graduation, Greener opened his law practice in Washington, D.C. In 1879, Greener was appointed Dean of the Howard Law School.

Greener was also active civically as well as in the Black Freedom Struggle. He publicly debated Frederick Douglass over the future of Black leadership and politics, advocating that Black people not rely on political parties and white allies. In 1881, Greener was part of the legal team that unsuccessfully defended West Point cadet Johnson C. Whittaker, a former student, who was convicted of the charge of self-mutilation after an attack by racist fellow cadets.

In 1898, President William McKinley appointed Greener United States Consul at Bombay, India, and later in Russia. When he returned to the United States, Greener took up a quiet life, settling on the South Side of Chicago with relatives, working as an insurance agent, practicing law, and giving lectures. He died in 1922 at age 78.

Theodore Richard Greener; a member of the Black Educator Hall of Fame. For more information on Richard Theodore Greener, visit the following site.


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