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Historians thought the documents were lost in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake because Greener had passed through at the time. Rufus McDonald got a call one day to see about an old abandoned house. The front door of the abandoned home near 75th and Sangamon was unlocked and swinging in the wind.

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Drug addicts, squatters and stray animals carried away whatever they wanted. Everything that wasn’t termite-infested seemed to have been stolen. Even the copper pipes were gone. But the scavengers missed something incredible. Hidden in the attic that McDonald was contracted to clear before the home’s 2009 demolition was a trunk. Inside were the papers of Richard T. Greener, the first African American to graduate from Harvard.

“I didn’t know who he was,” said McDonald, 51. “But as soon as I found out, I knew this was a story that had to be told.”

They were astonished to learn in the past week that Greener’s 1870 Harvard diploma — water-damaged but intact — his law license, photos and papers connected to his diplomatic role in Russia and his friendship with President Ulysses S. Grant have survived.

“It gives me gooseflesh,” said Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who leads Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African-American Research. “Greener was a leading intellectual of his time. It’s a remarkable discovery.” His graduation blazed a trail for black Harvard intellectuals including Gates’ friend, President Barack Obama, the professor added. “He was the voice before DuBois and the president’s predecessor.” Click here to read more.