Discovery of first black Harvard grad’s papers leads to as many questions as answers

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2012-09-10 22:55Z by Steven

Discovery of first black Harvard grad’s papers leads to as many questions as answers

Cable News Network (CNN)

Stephanie Siek

(CNN) – The story of Richard Theodore Greener is a book with many blank pages. The first African-American to graduate from Harvard University in 1870, he was one of the foremost black thinkers of his time, rising to prominence between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois and praised by both. Greener was the dean of Howard University’s law school, a diplomat and also the University of South Carolina’s first black professor and head librarian.

The recent discovery of some of Greener’s papers in Chicago could fill in some of those pages. But the ironies of his life remain.

One daughter of this book-loving man and advocate for racial equality would go on to become the most respected librarian of her era and an expert on medieval illuminated manuscripts—but not as a woman of color. Belle Marian Greener, who was born to Greener and his first wife, Genevieve Ida Fleet, passed for white. Even lighter-skinned than her two light-skinned African-American parents, she changed her name to Belle da Costa Greene to reflect a fabricated Portuguese ancestry that would explain her complexion.

Portuguese ancestry that would explain her complexion.

After separating from Fleet, Greener accepted consular appointments in Bombay (now Mumbai), India and Vladivostok, Siberia, but neither Fleet nor their children joined him. Da Costa Greene burned most of her personal papers before her death in 1950, and except for a possible visit with her father after his retirement in Chicago, the degree to which she and Greener kept in contact is a mystery.

While working as an American consular official in Vladivostok in 1898, Greener began a relationship with a Japanese woman, Mishi Kawashima, with whom he had a daughter and two sons. He then had to leave them behind in Vladivostok in 1906, when he was the victim of a rumor campaign that resulted in his retirement.

It’s possible that racism played a role in his reasons for leaving the post, said Michael Mounter, a historian and research librarian at the University of South Carolina who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Greener. Among the rumors flying at the time, Mounter said, were that he “was drinking too much and had a Japanese mistress.”

“You had a group of white Americans living in Vladivostok and he originally went to social events with them,” said Mounter.  “He did not identify himself specifically as being black. He didn’t want to, he didn’t see the point in it.”

“One might say, ‘Well, he was passing for white.’ Others might say he just wanted to be judged on his own merits,” said Mounter…

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