Chicago man to Harvard: Pay more for rare papers or I’ll burn them
by KIM JANSSEN Staff Reporter October 15, 2013 7:26PM
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
Updated: November 17, 2013 6:25AM
It was hailed as a “remarkable discovery” by President Barack Obama’s friend Professor Henry Louis Gates.
Hidden in a dusty trunk in an abandoned and looted Englewood home, the papers of Harvard’s first black graduate, Richard T. Greener, had long been thought lost to history.
So when the Sun-Times reported last year that 52-year-old contractor Rufus McDonald found them while clearing out an attic near 75th and Sangamon, he was praised as a hero who’d unearthed forgotten details of a pioneering African-American intellectual’s life.
Several museums and Harvard University itself expressed a keen interest in the historically significant 140-year-old Greener documents. An excited Gates, who leads Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African-American Research, even said the discovery gave him “gooseflesh.”
But now McDonald says the irreplaceable collection could go up in flames — literally.
McDonald — who recently sold just two of the documents for $52,000 to the University of South Carolina, where Greener also studied and taught — is threatening to torch the rest unless Harvard offers him more cash.
“I’ll roast and burn them,” an angry McDonald said Tuesday, saying Harvard offered an “insulting” $7,500 for a collection that includes Greener’s 1870 Harvard diploma and was appraised at $65,000.
“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.
A Harvard spokesman declined to comment on the ultimatum, but a university source familiar with the negotiation says it offered McDonald “significantly more” than $7,500.
The threat overshadowed an unveiling ceremony Tuesday at the University of South Carolina of Greener’s law diploma and law license.
University archivist Elizabeth West said South Carolina’s purchase of the two “priceless” Greener documents filled an important hole in the school’s history. For decades, white racists tried to wipe out any trace of the short-lived reconstruction-era integration at the university, going so far as to cut pages out of books that referred to black students and faculty such as Greener, she said.
Though Greener is not a household name, he was a friend and sometimes rival of other leading African Americans of his era, including Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington.
Known in his time as a brilliant attorney, scholar, diplomat and orator devoted to racial equality, he was born to the son of a slave in Philadelphia in 1844, left school at 14 and became a porter at a Boston hotel.
A pair of white businessmen helped him enroll at Harvard in 1865.
He became friends and allies with U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner and President Ulysses Grant, whose monument he later helped build, and once wrote an essay that renamed the so-called “negro problem” as “the white problem.”
He survived an 1876 assassination attempt, worked as a philosophy professor, served as a U.S. diplomat in Russia and lived out his sad, final days in Hyde Park while his children changed their names and passed as white in New York high society.
Before McDonald’s discovery, historians believed Greener’s records were lost in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It’s not clear how they ended up in Englewood, where Greener never lived.
McDonald, an African American whose own education ended at Calumet High School, 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.”
But West said she hopes he doesn’t follow through on his threat.
“To have found them after all these years and then to lose them would be extremely unfortunate,” she said.