August 2014 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Will Harvard Bid for its First African-American Student's Diploma?

Greener Diploma.pngThe original 1870 Harvard College diploma earned by Richard T. Greener, the first African-American to graduate from the school, goes to auction this week in Chicago. Rescued by contractor Rufus McDonald from an abandoned home's attic in 2009, the document and related archival materials made headlines. Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. called it an "extraordinary" discovery.

For some, the auction result, whatever it is, will come with a sigh of relief. While McDonald succeeded in selling two other documents for $52,000 to the University of South Carolina, where Greener was the first African-American faculty member, he became disillusioned with Harvard's offer for the diploma. In October of last year, he told the Chicago Sun-Times that he would "roast and burn them" rather than take an "insulting" offer, which he claimed was $7,500. Others have stated that Harvard later offered more, even as much as $35,000.

McDonald recanted his incendiary statement and has now consigned the ornate vellum document to auction, with an estimate of $10,000-15,000. "Our firm is honored to be facilitating the sale of this incredibly important document," said Mary Kohnke, director of fine books and manuscripts at Leslie Hindman. "Greener's Harvard diploma is a symbol of the power of the individual spirit to overcome incredible prejudice and break down institutional and social barriers."

The question is: will Harvard finally secure the historic document or choose to avoid a situation laden with hostility and drama?

Perhaps the Morgan Library will make a bid to safeguard the diploma. Richard T. Greener also happened to be the father of Belle da Costa Greene (born Belle Marian Greener), the librarian credited with helping J.P. Morgan build his legendary collection of rare books and manuscripts. She also served as the Morgan's first director until her retirement in 1948.

Image via Leslie Hindman Auctioneers.