U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“I Had To Get Their Attention”: Race, Class, and Intellectual History on Chicago’s South Side

Richard T. GreenerSometime in 2009, “clean out crew” contractor Rufus McDonald found, in the attic of an abandoned house on Chicago’s South Side scheduled for demolition, a cache of documents that belonged to Harvard University’s first black graduate, Richard T. Greener. The papers, originally in a “steamer trunk” that didn’t survive the demolition, included his “1870 Harvard diploma — water-damaged but intact — his law license, photos and papers connected to his diplomatic role in Russia and his friendship with President Ulysses S. Grant.” The cache also included a book, Autographs for Freedom (1853).[1]

As knowledge of the discovery spread from Chicago to Cambridge, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. called it “a remarkable discovery.” Gates opined that Greener was “the voice before DuBois” and “a leading intellectual of his time.” “It gives me gooseflesh,” he added. The story was picked up by news outlets around the country, including the Huffington Post. According to Kim Janssen, the Chicago Sun-Times reporter who broke the story, “historians thought the documents were lost in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake because Greener had passed through at the time.” He later reported that McDonald, also an African American, “was praised as a hero who’d unearthed forgotten details of a pioneering African-American intellectual’s life.” [2]

Richard T. Greener

Apart from his sterling “first” and Gates’ praise, Greener’s life merits attention for many reasons. Born in 1844 in Philadelphia, Greener graduated from Phillips Academy (1865) and Harvard University (1870). He went on to become a philosophy professor at the University of South Carolina (1873-77), but left after increased racial strife–to the point where he survived an assassination attempt in 1876. He landed on his feet in Washington, DC, becoming dean of Howard University’s Law School (1878-80) and, apparently at the same time, a clerk in the U.S. Treasury Department. As noted above, Greener became a friend of Ulysses S. Grant and served on the “Grant Monument Association.” In addition Greener served as a civil service examiner (1895-90) in New York City, and headed the Colored Bureau of the National Republican Party in Chicago in 1896. A few years later President McKinley appointed Greener a U.S. Commercial Agent in the Foreign Service (1898-1905); he was stationed in Vladivostok, Russia. Upon return to the United States he settled in Chicago with relatives. From then until his death in 1922, in Chicago, Greener lectured occasionally, practiced law, and was an insurance agent.[3] Greener’s exceptional life cut through an amazing swath of late nineteenth-century history.

In 1894 Greener composed a remarkable essay called “The White Problem.” Though little noted by intellectual historians (at least not in the books read, or remembered, by this author), Martha Nussbaum used the essay in her 1997 book, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. She wrote:

The rhetorical device of the lecture, and its deep insight, is to turn around and study as pathology what white culture has take for its own normalcy and superiority. Greener pillories the tendency to see white behavior as unproblematic and what deviates from those customs as a “problem.” [4]

Chicago’s South Side: Englewood and Auburn-Gresham

The home wherein McDonald found Greener’s papers was in the Englewood neighborhood, near the intersection of 75th and Sangamon—few blocks south of the Amos A(lonzo) Stagg stadium.[5] The home stood at the south end of the Englewood. Erik Larson fans will remember that Dr. H.H. Holmes (aka Herman Webster Mudgett), the central character in The Devil in the White City, operated his “Murder Castle” in this neighborhood. Englewood has traditionally been an extremely poor area of the city; its poverty rate was 44 percent in 2000, well above the 20 percent average for the city at that time. The neighborhood is home to Paul Robeson High School and Kennedy-King College (part of the City Colleges of Chicago).

No article clarifies where McDonald calls home, but he attended Calumet High School in Chicago’s Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, which is the next neighborhood south of Englewood. At the time of the discovery McDonald was 48 years old, and it’s highly likely that he’s spent most of his life in the Englewood/Auburn-Gresham neighborhood.[6]

The Discovery

Janssen interviewed McDonald in March 2012, when information about the cache become public—almost three years after discovery. Here’s Janssen’s dramatic opening narrative:

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…were the papers of Richard T. Greener, the first African American to graduate from Harvard. “I didn’t know who he was,” said McDonald, 51. “But as soon as I found out, I knew this was a story that had to be told.” [7]

McDonald partially revealed the reason behind almost three-year delay between discovery and the word getting out:

When McDonald found the steamer trunk in the Englewood attic, he suspected the contents inside were important but wasn’t sure. … Members of his clean-out crew told him to throw the heavy trunk and its contents away. McDonald knew better. He packed up the documents in a brown-paper bag and hauled them out of the house, bringing them to a book expert on the North Side. “Do you know who Richard Greener was?” McDonald was asked. When he told him he didn’t, the expert explained Greener’s importance. McDonald was offered money for the documents on the spot, but he declined. [8]

McDonald spent time afterward trying to get the documents assessed. This is confirmed in an October 2013 story, also authored by Janssen, where McDonald reports that the documents appraised at $65,000.

Tragedy Averted

From here the story devolves into an archivist’s and historian’s worst nightmare. The reason McDonald revealed the appraisal value is that Harvard had recently offered McDonald “just $7500” for the remaining papers. The “just” derives from the fact that McDonald had sold only two documents—Greener’s law diploma and law license—to the University of South Carolina for $52,000. Indeed, the reason Janssen had returned to the Greener-McDonald story is that, a few days earlier, an insulted McDonald threatened to “roast and burn” the rest of the papers. In Janssen’s words, “the irreplaceable collection could go up in flames — literally.” Harvard denied the low $7500 bid, saying McDonald had offered “significantly more” money. [9]

Janssen provided more from McDonald: “‘It might sound crazy, but people who know me know I’d really do it — I’m sick and tired of Harvard’s BS,’ he said, adding that he thought the Ivy League school was trying to take advantage of him. …McDonald…says he just wants a fair price for what’s left of the collection ‘so my 9-year-old twins can have the chance I didn’t and go to college if they want to.'” [10]

A few days later, after his temper had cooled, McDonald said he “decided against” a torching after, in Janssen’s words, “the overwhelming public reaction” to McDonald’s threat. Speaking of Harvard’s offer, McDonald reflected: “I had to get their attention. …They tried to push me to the side like a dirty old dishrag.” At the time of the October 18, 2013 article—the last of which I know in Janssen’s ongoing series about the affair—McDonald forwarded the possibility of marketing the papers to a “wealthy black Harvard alumni” rather than the university itself.[11]


Needless to say, McDonald got the attention he wanted—and more. But what do we make of this saga? Who are the heroes and villains? We know some of the “cash value” in this story, but what of its moral lessons?

McDonald was set up for a fall when he was presented, in 2012, as a kind of hero for saving Greener’s documents. At least that’s how Janssen sets it up in his first threat-of-torching story last fall. But it doesn’t take a careful, deep reader of the March 2012 stories to see that McDonald wasn’t just going to give way his findings to the first bidder. He should be commended for not quickly selling to the first potential buyer, the North Side book seller, he consulted in 2009. McDonald resisted, did his due diligence, and deserves fair market value for his personal treasure trove. He also deserves kudos for seeing the historical significance, that the documents represent “a story that had to be told.” None of this makes McDonald either a hero or a villain. He seems like an average working-class guy who got lucky—and had the wherewithal to know he was lucky.

Harvard University, on the other hand, comes off as, well, cheap—given its relative financial status in the higher education landscape. This seems especially so since the University of South Carolina paid $52,000 for just two documents. Even if Harvard’s “significantly more” offer for the rest of the documents was $15,000 rather than $7,500, well, that seems far off the value of McDonald’s holdings. To put things in perspective, as of mid-year 2012 Harvard’s endowment hovered around $30 billion—that’s $30,000,000,000. I realize that archives and libraries are perpetually underfunded, but something tells me that Harvard could give McDonald $50,000 without harming its students, staff, and faculty. Surely a savvy development person at Harvard could convince a wealthy alum to fund the purchase and gift the papers to the archives. I see no public relations benefit for Harvard in low balling a South Side, African-American construction worker. I hope Harvard isn’t subtly (or not-so-subtly) playing a race/class card.

McDonald was wrong to threaten destruction of the documents. It would’ve been a clear violation of the common good. Although he found them, they ultimately belong in an archives for study and professional preservation. But his frustration is totally understandable. He’s probably not a well-off citizen (yes, this is speculative), and he’s been holding onto the collection for almost five years now. The offer from Harvard suffered by contrast to what he had received from the University of South Carolina. In the meantime, so long as McDonald preserves the documents in good faith, there’s nothing wrong with holding out for fair market value if other buyers exist.

I hope somebody gives McDonald what he deserves. Those papers represent a significant opportunity for intellectual and cultural historians, as well as those interested in African-American history and the history of higher education. It’s going to be interesting to see how the story ends—for all parties. – TL


[1] Kim Janssen, “‘It gives me gooseflesh’: Remarkable find in South Side attic,” Chicago Sun-Times, March 10, 2012, http://www.suntimes.com/photos/galleries/11149243-417/it-gives-me-gooseflesh-remarkable-find-in-south-side-attic.html; Kim Janssen, “Man now says he won’t torch treasures he found,” Chicago Sun-Times;, October 18, 2013; “First Black Alumnus’s Papers Found: Trove may help explain a family history” Harvard Magazine, March 21, 2012, http://harvardmagazine.com/2012/03/greener-papers-found. I first reported on the Greener discovery in this March 15, 2012 “Light Reading” post (one that generated 30 comments!—though none related to Greener).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Janssen, “It gives”; Kim Janssen, “Chicago man to Harvard: Pay more for rare papers or I’ll burn them,” Chicago Sun-Times, October 15, 2013, http://www.suntimes.com/news/23168076-418/chicago-man-to-harvard-pay-me-more-for-rare-documents-or-ill-burn-them.html; “A Brief Biography of Richard Greener,” University of South Carolina, http://www.sc.edu/bicentennial/pages/greenerpages/greenerbio.html.

[4] Martha C. Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 156-7

[5] Not to be confused with either the University of Pacific’s Amos Alonzo Stagg Memorial Stadium, or the famous “Stagg Field” (location #1) where Fermi famously conducted the first fission reaction in “Chicago Pile-1” for the Manhattan Project.

[6] Janssen, “Man now”; Janssen, “It gives.”

[7] Janssen, “It gives.”

[8] Ibid.

[9] Janssen, “Chicago man”; Janssen, “Man now.”

[10] Janssen, “Chicago man.”

[11] Janssen, “Man now.”

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is a fantastic piece. It hits particularly close for home since I’m a student at South Carolina right now. Richard Greener has been talked a lot about here recently, due to the 50th anniversary of desegregation AND the 150th anniversary of the first round of “desegregation” in 1873. Our African American Studies program has made a conscious effort to make sure people are aware of the events of the 1870s.

    I’m also intrigued by this piece because it reminds us of the fact that there are quite a few intellectuals, including many of Black descent, who aren’t quite as well known as they should be. Hubert Harrison comes to mind, along with someone named Fannie Williams, who one of our professors has recently written a book about. Black intellectual history from between Reconstruction and World War I is still a rich field open to further analysis and debate, in my opinion.

    • Robert: Thanks for the comment. Can you tell me more about the kinds of discussions being had at USC about Greener? Has the tone been exploratory, critical, or hagiographic? Or has it concentrated solely on his career at USC?

      As for other unstudied black figures from the 1865-1917 era, I’m sure you’re right. Our textbooks talk about Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois almost exclusively, with some George Washington Carver and Ida Wells thrown in, until we reach Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes, etc. You never really hear about the late-life, post-Civil War exploits of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Tubman, etc. – TL

      • It’s mostly exploratory, trying to find out more about him and, at the same time, place his experience within the narrative of South Carolina’s Reconstruction history. Of course, we certainly don’t forget what he did after he left the state.

        And your piece really begs the question: how many figures in American history (just keeping it to the US for the sake of simplicity) have been forgotten simply because someone DIDN’T hold on to documents they found? This is really engrossing.

  2. Robert: Your documents-missing-therefore-forgotten point is most salient in relation oppressed groups and “others.” And idea: Maybe you and I should get our hands on the Greener essay, “The White Problem,” and read it together for the blog? If Greener is as important as Gates suggests (and I think Gates is occasionally given to overstatement), let’s prove it here. – TL

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