Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

The Troubling Case of William Hallett Greene

September 9th, 2008 by Ajuan Mance

William Hallett Greene (CUNY class of 1884)

Brooklyn Ron (brooklynron.com) offers a moving and detailed account of the disturbing events that shaped the life of William Hallett Greene, the first African American to graduate from CUNY/City College in Manhattan, New York. With many thanks to Brooklyn Ron, I offer this excerpt from his April 4, 2008 blogpost on the strange and terrible odyssey of this once-promising Black pioneer:

The Victor Who Became a Victim

For decades now, William Hallett Greene has existed as a distant figure in the history of The City College of New York, with that quality of distance pertaining not only to the passing of time, but to the inscrutability of the eyes gracing his comely image in photos taken for his graduation more than a century ago.

They were eyes that suggested a certain tenacity, even as they conveyed a sadness that was perhaps appropriate for a man lost in the dustbin of time.

Greene received his bachelor of science degree along with other members of his graduating class, on the evening of June 26, 1884, at the Academy of Music, not far from their beloved City College, then located at Lexington Avenue and 23rd Street.

An article in the following day’s New York Times noted the presence of Greene, remarking that he was “the first colored boy who has ever graduated from the college” and that he’d “made a good record” while a student.

“The audience applauded him liberally last night,” the Times wrote.

It was a day of triumph for Greene, as it was for other members of his class, who like him were men of great promise, schooled in a strict, classical way of study that left them with feelings of camaraderie and high ambitions.

Known affectionately as “Greeny,” Greene was popular and highly respected. He had been voted recording secretary of his class and he was a cabinet member of the literary society known as Phrenocosmia.

But many months of research—including searches of records in the National Archives, old city directories, ancestry.com and old newspaper articles—have led to a conclusion that Greene was, at the moment of his graduation, like a flashing star approaching its apex.

By all accounts uncovered so far, Greene soon fell victim to the racism that was so prevalent in his day, even as he, perhaps, also fell to inner demons that often grip young men, then, as now.

His story could even be called a 19th-century foreshadowing of what today has been termed the Plight of the Black Male.

Breaking Barriers

Greene, slight of build, standing five-foot-seven and weighing only 132 pounds, according to a June 1884 issue of The College Mercury campus newspaper, had long wanted to be in the U.S. Signal Corps. In The Mercury, he listed his favorite person as “Uncle Sam” and his favorite course of study as astronomy.

And so two months before his graduation, Greene, just 19 years old, applied to become the first black member of the U.S. Signal Corps, the highly competitive U.S. Army unit that tracked weather patterns and was the precursor to the National Weather Service.

The Signal Corps required that applicants pass written examinations, and in May Greene scored highly on it.

But he was rejected, bluntly told by the Signal Corps Commander, Gen. William Hazen, that, according to Hazen’s interpretation of the 1866 Army Reorganization Act, blacks were restricted to four regiments set aside for them, in the infantry and cavalry.

Young Greene turned to his college president, Alexander Webb, for help. And Webb, a former army general who had been a hero at the Battle of Gettysburg, responded right away. He dashed off a letter to Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln (son of assassinated President Abraham Lincoln), writing: “This young man is the first colored student who has ever passed beyond the sophomore class of this college. He is the first colored graduate and is, by election, the secretary of his class, composed of some of the finest young men of this city.”

To learn about the fate of CUNY’s first Black graduate, please click THIS LINK.

Posted by Ajuan Mance

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Posted in Academia, African Americans, Black History, Black men, Black Students, City College, CUNY, Higher Education, race, Uncategorized, William Hallett Greene

One Response

  1. Ron

    Great web site. I appreciate your interest in William H. Greene, pioneering black graduate of City College in New York.

    Needless to say, researching and writing that piece were eye opening experiences for me.

    Please stay in touch.

    Ron Howell
    (BrooklynRon)

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