‘It gives me gooseflesh’: Remarkable find in South Side attic
Kim Janssen, Staff Reporter
Richard Theodore Greener (1844-1922), Harvard Class of 1870
It wasn’t much more than a ghost house by the time Rufus McDonald got the call.
The front door of the abandoned home near 75th and Sangamon was unlocked and swinging in the wind.
Drug addicts, squatters and stray animals carried away whatever they wanted. Everything that wasn’t termite-infested seemed to have been stolen. Even the copper pipes were gone.
But the scavengers missed something incredible.
Hidden in the attic that McDonald was contracted to clear before the home’s 2009 demolition was a trunk. Inside were the papers of Richard T. Greener, the first African American to graduate from Harvard…
…Married to Genevieve Ida Fleet, with whom he had six children, he became dean of Howard University’s law school; worked at the U.S. Treasury and in Republican politics and law in Washington, and befriended President Ulysses S. Grant, whose memorial he helped build.
A friend and sometimes rival of other leading African Americans of his era, including Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, he wrote in 1879: “The negro has received so many hard knocks, and experienced so little consideration, charity, or justice from those who criticize him, that he has no quarter to give.”
In an 1894 essay he pointedly renamed the “Negro Problem” as “The White Problem.”
Sick of Washington politics, in 1898 he accepted a post from President William McKinley in Vladivostok, Russia. Leaving his family, he took a Japanese common-law wife, Mishi Kawashima, with whom he had three children. He was praised for his efforts as a U.S. agent during the Russo-Japanese war, but he was fired in 1905 after a smear campaign.
From 1909 until his death in 1922 he lived with cousins at 5237 S. Ellis in Chicago. Cut off from both his families, he was likely visited just once in Hyde Park by his daughter Belle da Costa Greene, according to biographer Heidi Ardizzone.
Along with the rest of Greener’s first family, da Costa Greene — the chic director of banker J.P. Morgan’s personal library — changed her last name to pass as white in elite New York society. “Greener had so much intelligence and passion and to see his equally talented children not have their achievements counted as African American must have been heartbreaking,” Ardizzone said.
Da Costa Greene burned her own personal papers before her death in 1950. The discovery of some of her father’s documents in an Englewood attic is “every historian’s dream,” Ardizzone said…
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