A Chicago Man Threatens to Burn Papers That Belonged to the First Black Harvard Graduate

He says the school isn't offering him enough money for the rare paperwork he discovered in an old building.


A Chicago man is holding hostage historic documents that belonged to Harvard University’s first African-American graduate, and threatening to burn them unless the school gives him thousands of dollars in exchange.

The 140-year-old documents belonged to Richard T. Greener, a black teacher who graduated from Harvard in 1870, and later went on to become a professor at the University of South Carolina. Greener is hailed by researchers as a scholar, for both his intellect, and his accomplishments as “a man of many firsts.” Greener was also the first black faculty member at USC, where he pushed for social and racial equality.

Rufus McDonald, a construction worker, said he found Greener’s possessions—paintings, writings, and diplomas—while clearing out a building in Chicago nearly five years ago. He said he offered the papers to Harvard, but that after haggling with the university, he has become tired of “Harvard’s BS.”  The university has offered him $7,500 for a collection, he said, although an appraiser had valued the lot at $60,000.

Now he is threatening to destroy the documents if the university doesn’t meet his price.

“I’ll roast and burn them,” McDonald told the Chicago Sun-Times this week.

McDonald has already sold some of the documents he discovered to USC, to the tune of $52,000. “It was like the Holy Grail. It’s such an important symbol of that time period,” said Elizabeth West, university archivist at USC. “They were symbols of an historical era that was very important, and that for many decades had been looked upon as a dark time in the university’s history.” She added that she was “very saddened,” to hear of McDonald’s threat. “I hope something can be worked out, because it would be real tragic to lose the materials.”

McDonald told the Sun-Times that “it might sound crazy”  to threaten to burn something so valuable—both educationally, and monetarily—but due to Harvard’s “insulting” offer, he is prepared to “really do it.”

Inquiries sent to Harvard officials about how much they offered for Greener’s documents were not immediately returned.

Henry Gates, Jr., who leads Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African-American Research, wouldn’t comment on the threat to burn the papers, but he said he wants the documents to find a home at the university. “I very much hope that Harvard acquires these documents at a fairly appraised value. Mr. McDonald’s discovery was extraordinary,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday.

In order to authorize such a purchase, a rigorous process must be followed, and the money for Greener’s papers wouldn’t merely come from the W.E.B. DuBois Institute’s budget.

The man who appraised the documents, George Minkoff, said he indeed valued them at $65,000. However, he said that estimate was based on the price that archivists at the University of South Carolina paid for their heap of the collection. “It’s a complicated story,” said Minkoff, owner of George Robert Minkoff, Inc. “Documents like this are iconic and very difficult to arrive at a number for.”

Minkoff has been in the appraisal business for more than 50 years, and said he has been serving as the middleman during the negotiation, trying to connect Gates, Harvard officials, McDonald, and people from the University of South Carolina in order to find “a common ground.”

Minkoff said it’s common to base the worth of an artifact on what other appraisers have made, and based on the sale price, called a “marker,” or a “comparable.”Last month, Minkoff appraised the documents at $65,000, after an archivist from the University of South Carolina told him they paid more than $50,000 for their portion of the find. Minkoff said he later learned that McDonald and USC merely came to an agreement on that price; he wasn’t aware the papers had not initially been appraised by an expert.

Archivists at USC maintain they did get the documents appraised, and that it’s part of their process for purchasing historic artifacts.

Whether or not the papers were expertly appraised, Minkoff said his estimate of $65,000 is accurate. “I wouldn’t change my mind on [the number]. But it’s a point where negotiations start, not a final number,” said Minkoff.

He said from his understanding, Harvard offered McDonald $35,000, not $7,500 as McDonald suggested in the Sun-Times story. He said Harvard’s offer to McDonald “was fair.”

Minkoff said he spoke with McDonald on Tuesday night, who told him he had issued his threat to destroy the papers via the Sun-Times article. Still, Minkoff doubted that McDonald would go through with such an extreme measure. “I think sometimes people get a little excited and say things they probably shouldn’t,” he said. “I have a good rapport with [McDonald], I don’t think that he will burn the documents. But what you’re dealing with here is a very sensitive issue. I think that [McDonald] was probably more dramatic than he had to be.”

Like Gates, Minkoff, who said he has no interest financially in the Greener diploma and papers, hopes they land in the right hands. “I certainly hope they come to a common ground. I have been in the middle, trying to find a middle passage to get these documents to Harvard University at a fair price,” he said. “They want the papers preserved. They would like it to be in the best place, and they think that might be Harvard. I’m just trying to smooth it all over, and be the person beyond good and evil, to explain everything to everybody.”