In Episode 11, we explore the complicated, and sometimes tragic, life of Richard Greener, the first Black consul to a predominantly white post.
Before Greener went to Vladivostok, he was a trailblazer in education and politics, but questions about his race and his motivations followed him throughout his political life.
Blakely, Allison. 1974. “Richard T. Greener and the “Talented Tenth’s” Dilemma”. The Journal of Negro History. 59 (4): 305-321.
Chaddock, Katherine Reynolds. 2017. Uncompromising Activist: Richard Greener, First Black Graduate of Harvard College. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Greener, Richard Theodore. 1874. Charles Sumner, The idealist, Statesman and Scholar. Columbia, S.C.: Republican Print. Co., printers.
Greener, Richard Theodore. 1894. “The White Problem.” Lend a Hand. Vol. 12 (May): 334-367.
Mounter, Michael Robert. 2002. Richard Theodore Greener: The Idealist, Statesman, Scholar and South Carolinian. PhD. diss., University of South Carolina.
Producers: Abby Mullen and Deepthi Murali
Story consulting: Christy Pichichero
Voice actors: Brandan Buck, Andrew Garland, Eric Gonzaba, Jessica Mack, Chioke I’Anson (VPM-ICA Community Media Center at VCU-ICA), Seth Savine, Josh Dew (Vagrant Coffee), and Jordan Haugh
Music: Andrew Cote
Every once in a while, someone comes along and says, ‘That man Greener up in Siberia, is all right.’CHARLES HARRIS (Brandan Buck), Katherine Chaddock, Uncompromising Activist: Richard Greener, First Black Graduate of Harvard College (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press), 137.
Everywhere throughout the East I received unfavorable reports of Mr. Greener, our commercial agent at Vladivostock [sic]. His habits are said to be extreemly [sic] bad.HERBERT PEIRCE (Andrew Garland), Katherine Chaddock, Uncompromising Activist: Richard Greener, First Black Graduate of Harvard College (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press), 141.
He has represented the United States as consul at Vladivostok with credit to himself and his race.PHILA M. WHIPPLE (Eric Gonzaba)
There was a long article in the Dalnii Vostok about this same Mr. Greener, a regular cheap politician’s puff, which could have been dictated by no one but himself! . . . Among other things in this article were the facts that he was a close personal friend of both [President William] McKinley and [Secretary of State William] Day. . . . He informs everyone he meets that he speaks several languages, and then to back up his statement, he usually drags in some French phrase. . . . He goes swelling around town with a flag, about four inches long, pinned with an eagle to his waistcoat, and a flag pin in his tie, so of course everybody knows who he is.ELEANOR LORD PRAY (Jessica Mack), Eleanor Lord Pray to Clara Lord McCue, Oct. 11, 1898, and Pray to Home, Oct. 21, 1898; cited in Katherine Chaddock, Uncompromising Activist: Richard Greener, First Black Graduate of Harvard College (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press), 135.
I know my own worth, the strength of my pen and my voice and the character of my determination.RICHARD T. GREENER (Chioke I’Anson), Allison Blakely, “Richard T. Greener and the “Talented Tenth’s” Dilemma,” The Journal of Negro History. 59 (4): 307.
ALLISON BLAKELY: I stumbled across Greener in my teaching at Howard. At one point, one of my colleagues, an older colleague, looking at my course on Russian history, he said, “Have you ever heard of Richard Greener?” And I said, “No.” And he just walked away. So I went to the library. That’s, that’s what you’re supposed to do in those situations, and the more I looked, the more I found.
ABBY MULLEN: Richard Greener lived a life full of contradictions. The more you look at him, the more you find–and the harder it is to understand him.
MULLEN: I’m Abby Mullen, and this is Consolation Prize, a podcast about the history of the United States in the world through the eyes of its consuls. Today we’re going to explore the complicated life of Richard Greener and ask ourselves, What kind of a man was he, really? Well, you decide.
KATHERINE CHADDOCK: He was a scrappy kid born in 1844, to two parents who had never been slaves, born in Philadelphia, his father was a steward on ships out of the Philadelphia Naval Yard. They moved to Massachusetts, to Boston, when Greener was about five or so.
MULLEN: This is Katherine Chaddock, who wrote a biography of Richard Greener.
CHADDOCK: And he went to public schools there in Cambridge. Cambridge had integrated schools, the rest of Boston did not. His father went off to the gold rush in California and was never seen again. He was an only child, he left school about 11, started supporting his mom, but a scrappy kid who loved everything about Boston. There were all these abolition meetings at the time, you know, this is the 1850s. And so he would go to them, he got to meet Oliver Wendell Holmes, he became friends with, with Charles Sumner, and, and you know, all sorts of people and he would go to these little meetings, he’d be in the back, he thought everything was exciting. So he ended up with a mentor, a wealthier gentleman, named Augustus Batchelder. And his mentor made sure that he got some sort of individual schooling of his own, a little bit of tutoring from Batchelder’s friends, and so forth. And then said, “Let’s get you to Oberlin.” He went to Oberlin. From there, he went to Phillips Academy, Andover. And from there, he went to Harvard, all on the encouragement and money, frankly, of this August Batchelder.
MULLEN: In fact, Greener was the first Black graduate of Harvard College [post-production clarification: The original version of this episode didn’t include the word “College.” We inserted it after the episode release to clarify that we refer to Harvard College, not Harvard University’s professional schools, from which there had been several Black graduates before Greener]. According to Allison Blakely, who studies the history of Black people in Russia, Greener had big plans.
BLAKELY: If you looked at his, his career during Reconstruction, he demonstrated that he was really a very broadly trained and and also very ambitious individual.
MULLEN: In 1873, Greener was invited to join the faculty of the University of South Carolina, as a professor of mental and moral philosophy. And he did. He loved it at USC. South Carolina was an integrated state, and Greener felt at home in both the Black and White populations he was around.
MULLEN: And then, in 1877, the federal troops left South Carolina. Reconstruction was over. Jim Crow had begun. Greener was no longer welcome in this place he had called his home. So he had to pick up and start over in Washington, DC. And this is when Greener started thinking more seriously about what it meant to be a Black intellectual.
BLAKELY: Greener epitomized the “talented tenth.” This is a concept that was originally advanced by White philanthropists to designate roughly the proportion of the black population that was educated and capable of making constructive contributions to advancing the interest of American society. I think this is how they they conceived it.
MULLEN: In the late nineteenth century, the Black community appropriated the term. This community included educated Black men such as W.E.B. DuBois, and also Alexander Crummell, who was the leader of the American Negro Academy. Greener was a part of this group.
MULLEN: He took various teaching jobs, including at Howard University. He also became a popular public speaker. In his speeches, he tried to argue that Black people had always been a part of the fabric of the United States.
Another difficulty of this white problem is the universal belief that somehow the Negro race began its career with President Lincoln’s proclamation. All such novices would do well to look up their old histories, newspapers, and pamphlets. Next to the Indian, he is probably of the purest racial stock in the country, and as has been stated, whatever accession has come to him, has been from the “choicest” blood of the country.
He has been thoroughly identified with it from the beginning. He was the agricultural laborer and the artisan at the South, the trusted servant and companion; at the North he took part in all mechanical pursuits, helped build the houses, worked on the first newspapers, made the first wood cuts, and was the best pressman at Charleston, Philadelphia, and Boston. In every industrial, social, and political movement, as well as in the different warlike struggles, he has borne an honorable part, which to profess ignorance of, is not creditable, or if, denied shows wilful prejudice. He was on the heights of Abraham with Wolfe; in the French and Indian wars with Braddock; the first martyr of the Revolution; is seen in Trumbull’s picture retreating with the patriots from Bunker Hill, musket in hand; Washington did not disdain to share a blanket with him on the cold ground at Valley Forge; at the South with Marion and Green; at the North with Washington and Gates, with Wayne and Allen. […]
He who doubts the record can read it from the pen of Negro historians, from Nell or Williams or Wilson, for “of those who perform the deeds, and those who write, many such are praised.”
No sneer of race, no assumption of superiority, no incrusted prejudice will ever obscure this record, much less obliterate it, and while it stands, it is the Negro’s passport to every right and privilege of every other American.RICHARD T. GREENER (Chioke I’Anson), Richard Theodore Greener, “The White Problem.” Lend a Hand. Vol. 12 (May, 1894): 355-357.
BLAKELY: And then it was just a question of how they make a contribution, to try to end the injustice, and, and to advance the interests of their people. And in some cases, frankly, if they could, they would have accepted becoming white. But, and by the way, he could pass for white often. And sometimes, he did. So there were these internal struggles, that that they were dealing with, in addition to the obvious, no, everyday restrictions, their, their sense of self and what they could do and what they could do that would be contributing to advancing their people.
MULLEN: Greener began to situate himself amongst other Black activists like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. None of these men had exactly the same beliefs about what should happen to the Black population of the United States, but Greener tended to align more with Dubois in…
BLAKELY: what came to be kind of an ongoing debate between those who followed the views of Dubois and those who followed Washington’s around the turn of the century. I think in order to understand that, you need to see it as part of a much wider issue, that, in my view, they were addressing, and it’s an underlying and, and in some still unresolved question, and that’s something I mentioned a little earlier that is what’s the appropriate place for Blacks in American society.
BLAKELY: In the case of Washington, he was basically asserting that it was too early for black people to demand full economic and political equality. Dubois, on the other hand, was insisting that it was already late, that it should have been demanded all along, and that it was time to fully realize it. And the only other thing I think you should realize about Washington, if you read his correspondences, you’ll find that the Washington that you see in, in those correspondences is not exactly that same Washington you see, that’s juxtaposed to Dubois. Washington was a little, he was a deeper thinker than his, his white establishment supporters thought. He was, he was much more pragmatic and was trying to do what he thought would work best, in order to advance even incrementally the situation of Blacks. Dubois was unwilling to compromise. And he was just insisting that the longer you wait, the longer it’s going to take.
BLAKELY: Dubois and Greener, I’m not gonna say they were snobs. But they thought of themselves as, in a sense, better. And so how dare American society keep even them with all of their ability and accomplishments? How dare they put up such artificial barriers? So they didn’t look down on Washington because they knew he was doing good work. But they thought that this was counterproductive in terms of the ultimate achievement of social justice.
MULLEN: Even though Greener spoke on behalf of the rights of Black Americans, it sometimes seemed to some of his Black acquaintances that he was trying to take advantage of being light-skinned. They thought that maybe he was becoming too White. And he didn’t help his own case when he agreed to work with a group that was trying to build a tomb for President Ulysses S. Grant. In order to work on the commission for Grant’s tomb, Greener and his family moved to New York.
CHADDOCK: Unfortunately, for Greener and his future career, he was the only Black person on that commission. Everybody else, whether they were on the board of directors, or on some other committee, were white people. So people back in Washington, and in South Carolina, were hearing about him that he doesn’t associate with Blacks anymore.
MULLEN: Greener vehemently denied these accusations.
I am free to challenge any man to produce an instance, one, where during my residence in New York I ever failed to act, or use my influence, for the race.RICHARD T. GREENER (Chioke I’Anson), Letter from Richard Greener to George A. Myers, Sept. 2, 1896. George Myers Papers, Ohio Historical Society.
MULLEN: But it was so easy for him and his family to just…fit in.
CHADDOCK: His family stayed in New York, but he and his wife were not having the best relationship. And, also, his family was living in an apartment building that was all white people except them. And they were sort of presumed to be white, and they didn’t say anything else about it. And he finally moved out and moved to another part of New York in a sort of a trial separation situation, we would call it now, and did his lawyering, what he could, which was not great. I mean, it was just hard. He also taught, he tutored students at night and cobbled together several different ways of making a living after the Grant Monument Association. Then, lucky for him, he always liked politicians and politics, and he was asked to be part of the McKinley campaign.
MULLEN: Now Greener got asked to be a part of the McKinley campaign because he lobbied really hard to be asked to be a part of the McKinley campaign. And when McKinley won the election, Greener saw his chance to get out of town. His relationship with his family had disintegrated, he was at odds with many in the Black community, and
The fact is, I need a change of scene.RICHARD T. GREENER (Chioke I’Anson), Richard Greener to Isaiah Wears, Apr. 18 and 24, 1898, Jacob C. White Collection, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, DC.
MULLEN: So he asked President McKinley for a consular appointment. Initially Greener wanted to go to Bombay, but then there was a plague there, so he didn’t go. There had been Black consuls before Greener, but they had all been sent to Latin American or African countries. Greener got an appointment to Vladivostok, in Russia–where he would be the first Black American consul in a mostly white country. But to some people, like Alexander Crummell, Greener didn’t seem particularly Black.
I have no objection to his being a white man; but I do object to his coming back to our ranks and then getting on my Negro shoulders to hoist himself, as a Negro, into some political office.ALEXANDER CRUMMELL (Seth Savine), Katherine Chaddock, Uncompromising Activist: Richard Greener, First Black Graduate of Harvard College (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press), 126-27.
MULLEN: On the way to Vladivostok in August of 1898, Greener didn’t feel the need to broadcast his race.
Since I have been at sea, from sun and tan, I am one of the blackest fellows on board, except a few of the deck crew. . . . But, my blood is good and the red is in my cheek and on my hands, so I manage to pass. I look narrowly at times to see if I can observe any special attention to myself, but thus far if felt, it is not exhibited by look or act.RICHARD T. GREENER (Chioke I’Anson), RTG to Whitefield McKinlay, Aug. 27, 1898, Whitefield McKinlay Papers, Carter G. Woodson Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
MULLEN: Once he got to Vladivostok, he threw himself into the work of the consul–or the commercial agent.
CHADDOCK: Although he was appointed and approved as consul, once he got there the Russian themselves didn’t want anyone with the name consul in, in Vladivostok for some reason; they wanted only in St. Petersburg, so he became commercial agent. That was great. Commerce was hopping in Vladivostok; they had just figured out how to keep their, their harbor from icing in the winner and open all the time; they had Japan, Korea, China nearby. The Trans-Siberian Railroad had just come to Vladivostok, so things were really hopping for the possibility of commerce, even from the United States. And the US government had suddenly decided on open door policy, the Pacific was, was a big jumping off place, etc. He had a lot to do because he was exploring for the first time what are the commercial opportunities here for US businesses. He would write long reports, he would, he would talk, talk, talk to people of all kinds and not just the Russians. He would write reports that had to do with no cheap goods, really expensive goods, but goods that say US on them blah blah blah, and then he also would start writing reports about the future: oh, here, here they’ve just opened up a new educational opportunity, here with a little college and in this part of Vladivostok and here they’ve done this. His reporting was voluminous.
MULLEN: Greener wanted the United States to claim more authority in Siberia–he wanted them to create a consulate-general (they didn’t, at least not then). He also supervised the evacuation from Sakhalin Island during the Russo-Japanese War, and he wrote a lot of reports about the war.
MULLEN: He seemed very happy, but some people thought he was too free with the rules and regulations of being a consul, and too flamboyant to be a good, respectable representative of the United States. This dislike might not have had anything to do with his race at all–just his personality.
CHADDOCK: He was also busy with a young woman, Mishi Kawashima, who he sort of took as a common law wife, because they were together for almost the whole time he was in Vladivostok until 1905. Mishi was from a little town in Japan. She had traveled the world as a nanny; she had been in all sorts of countries; she spoke many languages. And they ended up having three children. She went back to her little village in Japan every time they had a child, and then she would come back. At some point he got her appointed, of course not saying he knew her at all. He needed a paid Japanese-speaking errand person, got her appointed by the US government to be that too, so they were a two income family. And there was not really any indication as to how much Mishi knew about his status as a Black person.
MULLEN: This life seemed to suit Greener so well, but it wouldn’t last. There were mixed reports about whether Greener was actually doing a good job in Vladivostok. In particular, one member of the State Department, third assistant secretary of state Herbert Peirce, seems to have really taken a dislike to him. There were accusations of corruption. And then Greener’s political fortunes changed.
CHADDOCK: Well, of course, McKinley was assassinated. And apparently, what Teddy Roosevelt and others before him had always said, or decided, if somebody is appointed by somebody, as part of their four-year term, they should get to serve out that term, that McKinley term, even though McKinley was no longer President and Teddy Roosevelt was. And so that made Greener pretty happy. He wanted to stay there. He liked it there. Well, then when Roosevelt himself got his own presidency and got his own elected office in 1904, he had his own people he owed favors to. Most of the diplomatic corps wrote to him and said, you know, “I resign” at that point, you know, knowing that at that point, you allow that person to either reappoint you or appoint his own friends. The people that did him favors to get him elected. Greener was a little naive about that kind of thing. He thought, well, maybe I could, I’ve succeeded as a consul, maybe I should be one forever. Why wouldn’t he reappoint me? I’m not going to resign, and so forth. So he finally got the word, “Oh, we’ve appointed somebody else to take your place.” And after many machinations, Booker T. Washington trying to get Roosevelt to appoint one of his friends and so forth–Greener hadn’t really been that friendly, although he wasn’t unfriendly with Booker T. Washington–but eventually Roosevelt did appoint somebody, actually a white man who knew very good Russian and Japanese, whose parents had been missionaries and so forth, whose last name was Green, go figure, and Greener was recalled.
MULLEN: Not only did Greener lose his post, he lost ANOTHER family. His common-law wife did not come back to the States with him.
CHADDOCK: She was reluctant to ever travel back to the States with him. But she thought there was enough discrimination about, about Japanese people and Asian people in the United States. So she talked about discrimination. You couldn’t tell whether she was talking about to him or to her. Their three children never seem to know that their, their father was considered a Black American.
CHADDOCK: He was shocked when he got back and he couldn’t convince anybody in the Teddy Roosevelt administration to send him back overseas, and you know, he really thought that doing the job was the thing. And he had done a good job, and he had gotten some accolades. He had also gotten some some some bad news about, oh gee, you know, he was too forceful in this, he was too that, you know, whatever some combination of things, but he had achieved. And he just thought that was enough but he was politically naive in that. And actually Teddy Roosevelt did reduce the number of Black appointees overseas from what they had been appointing before him.
BLAKELY: For an ambitious, black politician, and professional, a lot of the consuls were lawyers and all other professions. But in all of those other professions, racism, limited the extent to which they could fully realize their potential. And from the government’s perspective, they were granting these kinds of appointments, basically, as rewards for service or anticipated service from these black elites, because, at least up until the early 20th century, the Republican party in particular, wanted to be able to take the Black vote for granted. The bulk of the Black vote that was Republican because it was the party of Lincoln, all the way up to the Great Depression, in fact. But by the beginning of the 20th century, it was no longer something that the party felt it needed. Because the kind of voter suppression that we’re, we’re seeing rehearsed and revived right now had been taking full effect with Jim Crow, to an extent where the Black vote was not any longer anything they needed to worry about. But for for Blacks who accept that these appointments, there was also the opportunity for broadening their worlds. They could go places that were beyond the imagination of most of the Black population. And it had the added benefit, and this was one of the things that increased their inner times of struggles with themselves, They can be in positions that they couldn’t have imagined they could be in in the United States.
MULLEN: Black activists had criticized Greener for not being Black enough, but he also wasn’t White–so he remained an outsider in the institutions he had been a trailblazer for.
Who is this Prof. Greener? He is nothing less than a graduate from old Harvard. I know him well, and knew his mother before him. But what does society care about a Harvard graduate, if his complexion is tinged with the hated color?WILLIAM H. CROGMAN (Josh Dew)
BLAKELY: I think that’s what actually was the driving force, this just fierce resentment, that that little bit of pigmentation in his skin was accounting for his being excluded from what he thought his rightful place in the world should have been.
MULLEN: When he returned to the United States in 1905, Greener eventually got involved in the Niagara Movement, which was the forerunner of the NAACP. If you list out his accomplishments, they seem pretty impressive:
MULLEN: First Black Harvard graduate. First Black Professor at the University of South Carolina. Dean of the law school at Howard University. First Black Consul to Vladivostok. Founder of the Niagara Movement. And yet for Greener—and those around him—it wasn’t enough. When he died, his friend Francis Grimke eulogized him this way, maybe not entirely fairly:
My old and dear friend Prof. Richard T. Greener is being laid to rest in Chicago at this very hour Friday afternoon. He died suddenly on Tuesday morning. I have known him for fifty years and during most of that time we have been close friends. He was a generous, big-hearted fellow, gifted in speech, widely read, finely educated, a man of broad culture. He had his faults, of course—he made mistakes, he had unfortunate family troubles and other troubles latterly in connection with his work as Consul in Siberia which soured him, and which made his latter days anything but happy. He gave the appearance of a disappointed man,—life had not yielded him all that he expected. Another thing which contributed to his unhappiness was the feeling, I think, that he was not appreciated as he ought to have been by the members of his race. With all his brilliancy of intellect and abundant stores of knowledge, he seemed to lack steadiness of purpose, the willingness to settle down to some one line of work and give himself unreservedly to it. The result is, he accomplished less than men who were far inferior to him in mental equipment and training. We all loved him for his many good qualities, and our only regret was that he did not stick to some one thing, and put his strength into it, strength of intellect and enthusiasm.FRANCIS GRIMKE (Jordan Haugh), Francis James Grimké, The Works of Francis J. Grimke, ed. Carter G. Woodson, vol. III (Washington, DC: Associated Publishers, Incorporated, 1942), 104.
Allison Blakely arrived at Boston University in 2001 after a career of thirty years in the History Department at Howard University. He is the author of Blacks in the Dutch World: the Evolution of Racial Imagery in a Modern Society (Indiana University Press, 1994); Russia and the Negro: Blacks in Russian History and Thought (Howard University Press, 1986—a winner of an American Book Award in 1988); several articles on Russian populism; and others on various European aspects of the Black Diaspora. His interest in comparative history has centered on populism, the history of democracy, and on the historical evolution of color prejudice. His current main project is an overview of the history of Blacks in modern Europe.
Among the honors and awards Blakely has received are Woodrow Wilson, Mellon, Fulbright-Hays, and Ford Foundation Fellowships. He was also honored by appointment as a visiting professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He is a former President of the Phi Beta Kappa Society (2006-2009), and continues to serve on the Editorial Board of its journal, The American Scholar.
In 2010 he was appointed by President Barack Obama to a six-year term on the National Council for the Humanities.
Katherine Chaddock is the author and co-author of seven books related to the history of higher education, as well as dozens of articles and chapters. She began her career in higher education as an administrator at the University of Utah and later at American University. She joined the faculty of the University of South Carolina in 1994, and from 2009 to 2012, she served as Department Chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policies.