Harvard University Honors Its First African American Graduate

GreeenerHarvard University recently unveiled a portrait of Richard Theodore Greener that will hang in Annenberg Hall along with other luminaries of Harvard’s past. In 1870, Greener was the first African American to graduate from Harvard.

After graduating from Harvard, Greener became principal of the male department at the Philadelphia Institute for Colored Youth, which later became Cheney University of Pennsylvania. He later taught philosophy, mathematics, languages, and history at the University of South Carolina, where he also served as librarian and earned a law degree. Greener served on the Supreme Court of South Carolina and later became a diplomat serving as United States consul to Bombay, India, and Vladivostok, Russia.

Greener’s portrait, by artist Stephen Coit, a 1971 alumnus of Harvard, was commissioned as part of the Portraiture Project of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations. The Portraiture Project was established in 2002 after a survey by the curator of the Harvard University portrait collection found that 690 of the university’s approximately 750 portraits were of White men. About 58 portraits were of White women. Only two portraits were of people of color. The first three portraits of African Americans commissioned as part of the Portraiture Project were unveiled in 2005. The paintings honored Archie C. Epps III, who served as dean of students, Eileen Jackson Southern, the first Black woman to hold a tenured faculty position at Harvard, and David L. Evans, an electrical engineer who worked on the Apollo moon project.

Dr. Evans, now a senior admissions officer at Harvard College, stated at the unveiling of the Greener portrait: “His portrait represents an important change in the University’s history, but don’t let this be the last change. Continue the change.”

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