An Englewood man overseeing the demolition of that house found a large trunk that had Greener's documents inside. He took the contents to a rare book expert, who recognized the photo.
"He said, 'Do you know who this is?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'This is Richard Theodore Greener.' I said, 'OK.' He said, 'He's the first African American to graduate from Harvard in 1870,'" said the man who found the papers, but does not want to be identified.
Realizing he had found something, the man turned down money he was offered on the spot for the items. The documents turned out to be Greener's 1870 Harvard diploma-- intact, but water damaged; his license to practice law in South Carolina; papers connected to his diplomatic role in Russia; and evidence of his friendship with U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant.
"He paved the way for Obama and everybody to get through Harvard. He opened the door," the man said.
Getting a value placed on the documents has been difficult. The man hopes to sell them for a considerable amount of money to support his family.
"The guy at the auction house looked at it like, 'Nobody wants that,'" he said. But museums don't seem to agree.
"Any repository, any museum, any library would just love to have them, 'cause they are pieces of history that were rescued and actually could have been lost," Charles Bethea, DuSable Museum, said.
The DuSable Museum did not name a price, but suggested the man donate the items for a tax write off. Harvard researchers examined the papers on Monday, possibly to get a better idea of what they might offer.
Greener died in Chicago in 1922 at the age of 1978. He spent his last years in Hyde Park. How the trunk ended up in an Englewood attic is a mystery.