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Yale College's first black grad: it's not who you think

In 1874, Edward Bouchet became the first African American to graduate from Yale College. Or so the university's histories tell us—and we've reported it ourselves more than once.

Yet that very year, a Quaker publication from Philadelphia recognized an earlier pioneer:

"The first colored graduate of the Academical Department of Yale," it says, "was Richard Henry Green, in 1857." At least two other newspapers published similar items around the same time in 1874.

Green, a New Haven native who died in 1877 at age 43, seems to have been lost from Yale history. Now he has been found again, thanks to research by an archivist at Swann Auction Galleries in New York City.

“It’s a fascinating story," the archivist, Rick Stattler, says in a phone interview. "I sort of stumbled across it by accident" while researching Green family papers that will be auctioned in April.

When he discovered that Richard Henry Green "may have been a pioneer African American student at Yale, I was a little skeptical," Stattler says. "But it turned out to be true.”

A "Mulatto" Clerk

How Green's race was viewed at Yale—by the college, by his classmates, and by Green himself—is unknown. Yale records don't mention his race, and no images or physical descriptions of him have been found, says Judith Schiff, the university's chief research archivist and author of the Yale Alumni Magazine's "Old Yale" column.

But the 1850 US census lists Richard Henry Green as a 17-year-old "mulatto" clerk, living in New Haven with other "mulatto" family members. The 1860 census records Green's race as "black."

And in 1874, while Green was still alive and with Edward Bouchet seemingly making history, somebody at the Society of Friends in Philadelphia knew that Green was actually "the first colored graduate" of Yale College.

New Haven Roots

Green's father, Richard Green, was a bootmaker—one of just a handful of African American tradesman at the time in New Haven—and a founding officer of St. Luke's Episcopal Church, a historically black house of worship on Whalley Avenue, about a half-mile from Yale's Old Campus. In the 1840s, the elder Green was a candidate to become an Episcopal deacon, although he was never ordained. 

Schiff confirms Stattler's finding that Richard Henry Green graduated in 1857. As a Yale student, she says, Green lived at home and belonged to the literary society Brothers in Unity and to the Sigma Delta fraternity. Yale catalogues list a home address on Chapel Street, then later an address on State Street. (Another black man, Courtland Van Rensselaer Creed, earned a Yale medical degree in 1857.)

After Yale, Green went to medical school at Dartmouth and served as an assistant surgeon in the US Navy. (A transcription of his application to the Navy includes a descriptive note from the board that examined him: "Fresh from school; no practical experience—sprightly and tolerably well booked. Weighs 220 lbs.") His Yale obituary also relates that he was born in New Haven on November 14, 1833; after college, he "taught school in Milford, Conn[ecticut], for about 18 months, and then in the Bennington Seminary" in Vermont; he earned his medical degree in 1864, served in the Navy from November 1863 "until the close of the war," and died of "disease of the heart."

The Country Doctor

We also know that Green practiced medicine in upstate New York from 1865 until his death in 1877. An 1897 book called Landmarks of Rensselaer County reported that the doctor was "fond of the study of natural history and spent much time collecting plants and objects of interest in that department. He was a most amiable and genial man, and a practical Christian."

In 1870, a census-taker in Hoosick, New York, recorded the race of Dr. Green, his wife—the former Charlotte Caldwell of Vermont, whom he had married in 1864—and their daughter as "white."

But that census notation “doesn’t give us any firm evidence” about how Green presented his own race, says Stattler, who is Swann's director of Printed & Manuscript Americana.

Rather than inquiring about a person's race, “I think it would have been more common for the census-taker to make the [racial] identification themselves," he says. "It’s more likely that the census-taker showed up at the door, conceivably just met with the wife and daughter, and said, 'Oh, this is a white family.'”

Fifteen years earlier at Yale, "It’s possible that he was understood to be white by his classmates," Stattler says. "Or it’s possible that he was understood to be African American, and"—with racial tensions rising and the Civil War approaching—"they tried not to make a big deal out of it.”

When Stattler first looked at the "small group of papers" that a dealer brought to Swann, he thought they had "minimal value." The collection contains letters to and from Green, his wife, his daughter, and his brother-in-law John Caldwell, as well as some business records. One of the letters is from a Yale classmate of Green's.

Caldwell, a white merchant, went south after the Civil War and "became what we know as a carpetbagger" in Alabama, selling what were described as “negro shoes," among other goods, Stattler says. Initially, “I thought that might be the most historically significant” part of the collection.

Then he started to put together the pieces of Richard Henry Green's life.

“I don’t think I’ve ever made a find of this kind of historical significance,” Stattler observes.

Bouchet's Legacy

But what of Edward Bouchet, whose name and story have long been so important? Bouchet is memorialized in a graduate honor society founded at Yale and Howard University and in an award given by the American Physical Society, among others, and he is frequently suggested as a namesake for one of Yale's two proposed residential colleges. Bouchet's national reputation does not by any means rest only on his being the first African American Yale College graduate: he was also the first known African American in the country to receive a PhD (Yale 1876), and he was the sixth American—of any race—to earn a PhD in physics.

We plan to follow up on Green in an upcoming print issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine. So check back for new developments in this 157-year-old story.

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The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Rick Stattler, Judith Schiff, Edward Bouchet, Richard Henry Green

1 comment

  • Hattie Hume Franks, 8:48pm August 06 2014 | Ico_flag Flag as inappropriate

    I have several copies of the 1922 Yale Alumni Magazines. Are they of any value to anyone? My father, Cyril Hume, saved them and I do not know what to do with them.

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