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South Side man backs off threat to burn historic papers

Rufus McDonald holds phoRichard Theodore Greener he found while cleaning out house. Richard Theodore Greener was first African American graduate

Rufus McDonald holds a photo of Richard Theodore Greener he found while cleaning out a house. Richard Theodore Greener was the first African American to graduate from Harvard College and a Dean of the Howard Law School. He died in 1922. Tuesday March 6, 2012. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 19, 2013 6:24AM



A South Side man, who threatened to torch a treasure trove of irreplaceable historic documents that once belonged to Harvard’s first black graduate, says he’s changed his mind.

Rufus McDonald, 52 — who discovered Richard T. Greener’s 1870 Harvard diploma and other rare papers in an abandoned Englewood attic in 2009 — vowed earlier this week that he’d burn them unless Harvard offered him more cash to place them in its archive.

But on Thursday the contractor said he’d “decided against it” after the overwhelming public reaction to a Chicago Sun-Times story about his plans to try to squeeze extra money out of the wealthy Ivy League school.

Though the majority of readers who contacted the newspaper about the fire threat were appalled by what they saw as McDonald’s crass attempts to get rich on an important slice of African-American history, McDonald said he’d been told by supporters that “You’ve done what you were supposed to do” by standing up to Harvard.

The former Calumet High School student claims Harvard offered him just $7,500 for documents that were appraised at $65,000 — an account Harvard officials dispute.

Still, McDonald was unapologetic about the threat to destroy the papers of a pioneering black intellectual who counted Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington among his colleagues, and who served as a philosophy professor, U.S. diplomat and lawyer.

“I had to get their attention,” McDonald said of the university officials. “They tried to push me to the side like a dirty old dishrag.”

McDonald, who is African-American himself and says he wants to use any money he eventually earns from the papers to send his children to college, said he hadn’t heard from Harvard since he made his threat.

But he added, “I expect to!”

In the meantime, he plans to market the papers to wealthy black Harvard alumni, he said.

“They tried to play games with me but I showed I can play games, too,” he added.

Email: kjanssen@suntimes.com

Twitter: @kimjnews



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