03/14/2012 07:11 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2012

Richard T. Greener, First Black Harvard Alum, Diploma Discovered In Condemned Chicago House

An abandoned home near 75th and Sangamon, on Chicago's South Side, was the unlikely hiding place for an important piece of black history -- the papers of Richard Theodore Greener, Harvard's first African-American alumnus.

Greener's 1870 Harvard diploma, his law license, photos and papers connected to his diplomatic role in Russia and his friendship with President Ulysses S. Grant were discovered by contractors hired to clear the home before its demolition in 2009, the Chicago Sun-Times reports.

Historians were reportedly shocked to learn last week that the documents had survived, since they were thought to have been lost in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, where Greener was visiting at the time.

Pictured in a photo from the Harvard University Archives, Greener is described as the first black to enter the college, though not the first one to be admitted.

Richard T. Greener was the first black to enter the College and to complete the undergraduate curriculum with an A.B. in 1870 ("winning the chief prizes in writing and speaking along the way"). He was not, however, the first black to be admitted, a distinction belonging to Beverly Garnett Williams, in 1847. (He died just before the academic year began and thus never entered the College.)

According to a bio from the University of South Carolina, where he served as the first African-American professor, Greener was born on January 30, 1844, and passed away in 1922. He is said to have been born to the son of a slave in Philadelphia in 1844, and to have left school at 14 to become a porter at a Boston hotel.

Greener was looked after by a pair of white businessmen who helped him enroll at Harvard in 1865, the Sun-Times reports.

"Greener was a leading intellectual of his time. It's a remarkable discovery," fellow Harvard Crimson Henry Louis Gates, Jr. says.

According to the paper, historians are mystified at how Greener's trunk full of papers ended up at the South Side home.

How the documents got to the Englewood attic is a question that might never be answered. Greener lived the final years of his life with cousins in Hyde Park. But there's no evidence he ever lived in the Englewood home, which is nearly six miles away.

Greener's graduation blazed a trail for black Harvard intellectuals including these notable alumni.