Diploma of First African-American Harvard Graduate Is Being Auctioned Off

The Chicago man who discovered the document had originally threatened to burn it. But now it's up for sale.

Image courtesy of Leslie Hindman Auctioneers

Image courtesy of Leslie Hindman Auctioneers

A Chicago man who had threatened to burn a diploma that belonged to Richard T. Greener, the first African-American to graduate from Harvard, after the school allegedly refused to pay him thousands of dollars for the document, is selling off the historic piece of paper instead.

This week, Greener’s Bachelor of Arts diploma will hit the auction block in Chicago, when it’s sold by Leslie Hindman Auctioneers to the tune of $15,000.

“Greener was a pioneer of social and racial equality in the racially divided South. His Harvard diploma, a document of incalculable historical significance, has never before been offered at public auction,” according to representatives from Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, who will put the diploma out to bid on Wednesday.

The document, dated July 1870, along with piles of other personal papers and artwork that belonged to Greener, were previously thought to have been lost during a San Francisco earthquake in 1906. In 2009, however, Rufus McDonald, a 52-year-old contractor, stumbled upon a treasure trove of Greener’s belongings while cleaning out an old house in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood.

After he found what Harvard University officials have called priceless artifacts, McDonald started selling his discovery to those who he thought could benefit from having them as part of their own collections.

McDonald sold some of the documents for around $52,000 to the University of South Carolina, where Greener taught. “It was like the Holy Grail. It’s such an important symbol of that time period,” Elizabeth West, university archivist at USC, told Boston last year.

When he approached Harvard with a collection that included the diploma, McDonald said he was offered a lowball amount based on appraisals he had done, and instead threatened to torch the document if the school didn’t meet his demands.

“I’ll roast and burn them,” he said in October of last year, when trying to negotiate with the Cambridge university. “It might sound crazy, but people who know me know I’d really do it—I’m sick and tired of Harvard’s BS.”

While the actual amount that Harvard offered McDonald was never revealed, Henry Gates, Jr., who leads Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African-American Research, told Boston that he wanted the documents to end up back at the school.

“I very much hope that Harvard acquires these documents at a fairly appraised value. Mr. McDonald’s discovery was extraordinary,” he said at the time McDonald threatened to burn them.

The price tag set on the diploma alone—valued between $10,000 and $15,000— is lower than McDonald’s original demands from the school for a pile of items owned by Greener. In October of 2013, McDonald was calling on the school to fork over around $65,000 for the Harvard degree and several other documents, after he had them appraised.

Because it’s being sold through an auction house, McDonald doesn’t stand to pocket the full amount of the sale, either. According to a spokesperson from Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, the company will take a cut of the profit once the sale is complete. “If it sells, [Mr. McDonald] gets a portion of that sale. If it doesn’t sell, he can take the document back with him,” the spokesperson said over the phone on Tuesday.

Boston is awaiting a reply from officials at Harvard University about whether or not they will bid on the documents now that McDonald is looking to get rid of them, and not set them aflame.