U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Labors of Passing: Richard T. Greener’s Life, Movements, and Career

A few weeks ago I completed Katherine Reynolds Chaddock’s Uncompromising Activist: Richard Greener, First Black Graduate of Harvard College (Johns Hopkins, 2017). Long-time S-USIH readers will recognize Greener’s name, as it appeared here earlier this year in a post from Robert Greene. He previewed Chaddock’s book, focusing on Greener’s work and period in South Carolina. Robert also noted a post of mine from 2014 on the discovery of Greener-related artifacts and papers in Chicago.

In an interesting twist of fate, and what may be a first for the blog, my 2014 post about Greener partially inspired Chaddock to pursue her project on Greener. The post, and a Chicago Tribune article I cited, comprise the first endnote in Chaddock’s book. Because turnabout is fair play, I’ll mention that a 2003 article by Chaddock, titled “A Canon of Democratic Intent: Reinterpreting the Roots of the Great Books Movement (from The History of Higher Education Annual, vol. 22) helped reinforce the argument of my dissertation about the dreams of cultural democratization imagined by great books promoters. (I say “reinforce” because my ideas first originated in a year 2000 graduate seminar paper). Scholarship is, at times, a virtuous circle.

On Greener and Chaddock’s recounting, and interpretation, of his life, I found three themes most interesting: his economic instability, his passing, and his movement. These themes, I think, add layers to his prominence as an educator, activist, and intellectual.

Movement is a great theme of African American cultural and social life. You hear it, for instance, in jazz and blues music. The railroad is a recurrent motif in the blues. But Greener’s movements derive from other sources, namely jobs related to his professional ambitions. His travels are related to, and enabled by, his ability to “pass” (to be seen as a white) and his economic instability.

Greener was born in Philadelphia (1843, p. 8), but then his family moved to Boston (1852, p. 9). A benefactor enabled Greener to attend school at Oberlin College, in Ohio, starting in 1862 (pp. 15-16). After a year, however, he transferred to Phillips Andover, in New Hampshire (pp. 19-23). He began at Harvard in 1865, but returned to Philadelphia in 1870 after graduation. He taught for two years there, and relocated to Washington, DC in 1873 to be principal of the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth (pp. 42-43). He stayed there less than a year before accepting a faculty position at the University of South Carolina (pp. 46-48).

Greener remained at the university for four years, returning to DC in 1877 after the breakdown of Reconstruction efforts (p. 74). He spent several years working in DC as a lawyer, performing labor for the Treasury Department, serving as dean of Howard University’s Law Department, and serving as a public speaker and activist (chapters 7-8, passim). The next chapter of his life, working for the Grant Monument Association, brought him to New York City in 1885 (pp. 107-108). Greener remained in NYC until 1898, when we won appointment as U.S. Consul to Vladivostok, Russia. He would serve in Russia until 1906. After returning to the U.S., he lived in DC for a few years before relocating permanently to Chicago in 1909, where he lived until his passing in 1922. He had become acquainted with Chicago while working for the McKinley campaign in 1896, traveling from Chicago to Missouri, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee speak on the future president’s behalf (pp. 124-125).

Chaddock consistently returns to Greener’s economic instability, in part, because it’s a theme of Greener’s own correspondence. “His ‘whole life’ seemed, Chaddock recounts, “to him ‘one of continuous struggle, aspiration, some success, but very little money'” (p. 113). Referring to his time in New York City, Chaddock reflects that “as always, the indefatigable Greener continued to have many irons in the fire, although few of them were lucrative or long lived” (p. 123). Chaddock’s inability to suppress his true feelings, to be politic, contributed to his economic travails and movements. Yet one gets the feel, after surveying his whole life, that Greener–despite his laments— accepted these issues as a consequence of being candid, honest, and active with regard to racial issues.

Greener’s ‘ability’ to pass contributes to, and subtracts from, his ambition and movements. His career trajectory was enabled by his superficial inability to offend certain whites with his appearance. His “fair complexion” was inherited from his light-skinned mother, Mary Ann Le Brune, whose father was a Puerto Rican Spaniard (Alphonse Josef Le Brune). Greener was described, later, as a person with “olive complexion…Caucasian features and curly hair,” more “Spanish looking” than black. His future wife, Genevieve, was also “pale-skinned and comfortable in white company” (p. 58). Despite his ability pass, Greener never ran from his racial roots. He accepted his role as a black man at Oberlin, Phillips Andover, and Harvard. His work as an educator came at institutions service black citizens (DC, South Carolina). His first time in Chicago, for instance, came working for McKinley’s “Western Colored Bureau” (p. 124). But it seems that Genevieve sought the company of whites more than her black forebears. With several children who were also light-skinned, when the family moved to New York City Genevieve and Greener began to grow apart (p. 126). In fact the couple were separated from 1898 until Greener’s death. Richard’s embrace of his black heritage enabled some career success even while it eventually destroyed his family life.

Passing helped keep Greener moving in age of white supremacy. It enabled the achievement of a relative fullness of life compared to his black male peers. He could find new and different jobs, where others around him, in politics and education, labored under the impression that he was part of the in-group. His life’s movements were less to escape an physically oppressive white supremacy than to fulfill the dreams that whites had about his abilities and competencies. But passing, in Chaddock’s telling, also proved an unstable foundation for sustained success. Passing enabled and limited his intellectual and professional horizons. – TL

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Thanks for this review of Katherine Reynolds Chaddock’s new book on Richard Greener. I look forward to reading it. It sounds like this book would pair well with Allyson Hobbs’s ‘A Chosen Exile’ for teaching a session/course on the history of racial passing.

    • Note: I won’t say that Reynolds’ herself spends A LOT of time explicitly addressing the topic. But there’s enough there to work with, including a chapter (1 of 13 total, titled “Off White”) that covers passing and racial identity. I spent time on it above because the topic, generally, fascinates *me*. Of course I was thinking, in the background, of Dolezal and a host of others. – TL

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S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.