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Documents of historic African-American undervalued, finder says

Published: Friday, Oct. 18, 2013 10:25 a.m.CDT

CHICAGO (MCT) — A Chicago contractor who uncovered a trove of documents belonging to the first African-American to graduate from Harvard University said Wednesday he's been frustrated by how little the Ivy League school is offering him for the papers.

"It's like they assumed I wouldn't know any better," said Rufus McDonald, 52. "It's a great insult to the African-American community that this is what they think of the first African-American to come to their college."

The documents belonged to Richard Greener, a prominent intellectual of the 1800s who spent his final years in the Hyde Park neighborhood.

In 2009, McDonald was contracted to clear a house in Englewood that was scheduled for demolition when he found a steamer trunk in the attic filled with documents. He had never heard of Greener, but he had some experience with antique dealers from selling family heirlooms and knew he had stumbled on something special.

Though not as well-known as some of his contemporaries — which included Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington — Greener was a pioneer in his own right, said Carol Adams, president of the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago.

Greener left school at 14 but earned a spot in Harvard's freshman class in 1865 and became the university's first African-American graduate in 1870. He was dean of Howard University's law school, served as a diplomat in Russia, and earned a reputation as a scholar and an advocate for racial equality, historians said.

While he lived in Hyde Park toward the end of his life, his connection to the house where the documents were found is unclear, Adams said.

McDonald said an appraiser in New York suggested he ask Harvard for $65,000 for a collection that included Greener's Harvard diploma, a certificate written in Russian from his time as a diplomat and five other documents.

McDonald said he was stunned when Harvard offered $7,500. A Harvard representative confirmed the university made an initial bid of $7,500 before the documents were appraised. But after the appraisal, the university offered McDonald a significantly larger sum, the representative said.

The representative declined to specify the amount of the second offer, which McDonald maintains he never received.

This week, McDonald told the Chicago Sun-Times he would burn the documents if Harvard didn't agree to what he considered a fair price.

Speaking Wednesday at his Marquette Park neighborhood home, McDonald backed down from those comments, which he said he made out of anger and frustration. He nonetheless indicated he's ready to give up on Harvard and hopes to find a collector who values Greener's contribution to history and is willing to pay a sum in line with what he received for two documents he's already sold.

The University of South Carolina paid McDonald $52,000 for Greener's law diploma and South Carolina law license from 1876.

Those documents were "the Holy Grail" for the university because they were from a four-year period after the Civil War when the university integrated and added its first African-American students, trustees and professors, said university archivist Elizabeth West.

Greener taught philosophy, worked as a librarian and obtained his law degree at South Carolina before the university returned to segregation in 1877, West said.

"It was a marginalized time period, so we didn't have a single diploma from the Reconstruction," West said. "The thrill I felt when I unrolled it in Mr. McDonald's home was incredible."

McDonald said he couldn't understand why Harvard didn't seem to feel the same way. He is working with a friend to find collectors interested in buying the documents.

"This is a man who should have been in the history books, who should have streets named after him," McDonald said. "Maybe these documents can bring his legacy back."

(c)2013 the Chicago Tribune Distributed by MCT Information Services

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