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.