Following speeches and a spirited gospel performance, Devontae Freeland ’15 unveiled a portrait of Andover’s first black graduate, Richard T. Greener, Class of 1865, alongside Harvard administrators last Thursday.
Greener was the first black Andover graduate, and went on to become the first black Harvard graduate, when he graduated in 1870.
The Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations sponsored the unveiling of Greener’s portrait as part of its Portraiture Project, which aims to diversify portraits around campus.
Freeland, a freshman at Harvard and an intern at the Harvard Foundation, has followed a similar academic path to Greener.
“When I first heard that there was a plan to dedicate a portrait to Greener, I reached out to my boss, Dr. Counter, at the Harvard Foundation, explained my personal connection to Greener, and asked if there was anything I could do to make sure Andover was represented and incorporated in the programming. In turn, he asked me to speak at the unveiling,” wrote Freeland in an email to The Phillipian.
“As a black student at elite, predominantly white institutions, I feel irrevocably tied to Greener because his journey cleared the path for me long ago. He proved himself – and therefore all blacks – worthy so that I would not have to,” Freeland continued.
Freeland spoke alongside other Harvard students and administrators at the unveiling.
“Richard T. Greener… stands as an icon, a scholar, a statesman, a Negro, a shining example of the Afro- American legacy,” said Freeland in his speech.
Unwana Abasi ’13, a junior at Harvard, wrote in an email to The Phillipian, “Placing a portrait of Richard T. Greener in the Center of Annenberg Hall was an amazing way to honor his legacy. The portrait route demonstrates the importance of a lesson institutions like Harvard are beginning to understand more, and that is that representation matters. It matters to have role models like Greener visible to black and brown students who may reasonably take inspiration from the other, whiter portraits with a grain of salt.”
Abasi continued, “He is a daily reminder that milestones in racial progress, small or large, must not only be an artifact of our past. They must, and do, exist in our present and our future.”
Freeland had the honor of physically unmasking the portrait, alongside Dr. S. Allen Counter, Director of the Harvard Foundation.
“As we pulled on the cord to unveil the portrait, I not only felt a part of history, but I felt a part of the future. Greener’s face now perpetually sits in a place where his legacy cannot be ignored,” said Freeland.
Freeland graduated Andover exactly 150 years after Greener and was awarded the Richard T. Greener 1865 Endowment Scholarship upon his admission to Andover in 2011.
The Greener scholarship was established in 1989 by Andover alumni. It is a full-tuition scholarship given annually with, according to the Financial Aid Office, “preference for underrepresented students of color.”
“One hundred fifty years after Greener’s graduation, 150 years after the end of the [American] Civil War, 150 years after the ratification of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments… I felt a great deal of personal connection,” said Freeland in a phone interview with The Phillipian.
Steve Coit, Harvard alum and official portrait painter of the Portraiture Project, spent a considerable amount of time researching Greener before starting the painting.
In an email to The Phillipian, Coit wrote, “Apparently at the time, Andover was so focused on training students in Latin and Greek that Greener found himself at Harvard ill-prepared in math and science, and had to take a ‘gap year’ (before it was called that) to catch up with everyone else.”
“But it also sounds like Andover is where he really started to hit his stride,” continued Coit. “His roommate in Stoughton, the dorm pictured in the portrait, was also his best friend from Andover.”
Coit’s portrait of Greener is on full display in Annenberg Hall, the Freshman dining hall at Harvard.
“It’s really exciting for me to see Greener’s face everyday in the dining hall in which I eat,” said Freeland.
Robert Rush ’14, a sophomore at Harvard, was also a recipient of the Greener Scholarship, and was in attendance at the unveiling ceremony. Like Freeland, Rush is hoping that Andover will show more recognition toward Greener and his legacy.
“When I found [out] who [Greener] was and what he accomplished, it reaffirmed my place at Andover,” wrote Rush in an email to The Phillipian. “But it also disappointed me that Andover hasn’t recognized him and other African-American students that challenged the status quo. I hope that this example at Harvard will push Andover to recognize the importance of having equal representation, both in student body and in its history.”
Greener’s legacy at Andover currently lives on by way of the scholarship in his name and a framed copy of a “ Phillips Bulletin,” from July 1922, which features him and hangs next to the entrance of the Office of Community and Multicultural Development.
“I would really love to see some physical recognition or commemoration of Greener at Andover… whether that’s a portrait, plaque, room,” said Freeland.
In an email to The Phillipian, Head of School John Palfrey, who was invited by Freeland to the ceremony but was unable to attend, said, “Richard T. Greener was a trailblazing intellectual and visionary leader whose character continued to blossom during his time at Andover. I am incredibly grateful to Harvard for choosing to honor his legacy with such permanence and visibility.”