William H. Greene was the First Black CUNY Graduate and First Black Member of U.S. Signal Corps, a Victor and a Victim


When I became secretary of the board of trustees back in the summer of 2004, I found a number of photographs buried in a closet here at CUNY’s Central Office, including one of a young man, William H. Greene, who was believed by officials of The City College of New York (including their archivist, Professor Sydney Van Nort) to be the first black graduate of City College, in 1884. The look in his eyes was sad and somewhat haunting. I had the sense that there was a hidden story of struggle and strength behind them. We dusted off the photo and it now graces the wall of our Trustee Lounge, along with photos of Jonas Salk, A. Philip Randolph, and other alumni luminaries. In the months after the discovery of the photo, I began asking various people about Greene and learned that he had applied to the elite United States Signal Corps but had been rejected solely based on his race. Eventually he became the first African-American to enter the Signal Corps, an extraordinary achievement. As I learned more about his struggle to overcome discrimination, my curiosity grew even stronger and I asked Ron Howell, editor of CUNY Matters, to see what he could learn about this person from our past who so enchanted me. What you will read on these two pages is the result of that effort. We are honoring the memory of a “sturdy son” of City College in trying so diligently and with such persistence to uncover and tell his story.

— Jay Hershenson, Secretary of the Board of Trustees and Senior Vice Chancellor for University Relations

By Ron Howell

For decades now, William Hallett Greene has existed as a distant figure in CUNY’s history, 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 fivefoot- 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.”

Webb said he believed Hazen was erring in his interpretation of the Army Reorganization Act.

Lincoln not only agreed but in harsh terms ordered Hazen to accept Greene or any other black person who met the qualifications for the position.

Thus Greene effectively wrote his name on a bit of military history. He went on to attend the Signal Corps training camp at Fort Myer in Virginia, where newcomers were instructed in the specialized skills of the Corps, which in those days had to do with telegraph communications and the tracking of cloud and wind patterns. Greene must have felt well prepared for the tasks at hand, given his background at City College.

Sure enough, he received the second highest grade in his class of eight trainees (two of whom were dropped for poor performance), and he was soon sent to head up the Signal Corps station in Pensacola, Florida.

In his 1974 book Blacks and the Military in American History, (published by Praeger), historian Jack D. Foner wrote that Greene “opened the way for the acceptance of a handful of black enlisted men into other technical branches, such as the Hospital Corps, the Ordnance Corps, and the Quartermaster and Commissary departments.”

But Greene’s story did not end with that happy achievement.

Perhaps he might have sensed a hint of lingering ill feelings right there on his enlistment papers, where it said, near the section “Scars and Marks found upon the person,” the notation: “A colored man, Enlisted for the Signal Corps, U.S. Army by order of the Secretary of War.”

The papers were signed by 2nd Lt. B.M. Purssell, a recruiting officer who had strongly disapproved of Greene’s enlistment.

Sure enough, soon after his posting in Pensacola, there came a series of demotions and transfers that ended two years later, in June of 1887, when he was dishonorably dismissed from the Signal Corps and the army. His superiors charged that Greene gambled, falsified reports and was in debt.

A Target

But a close reading of scores of documents at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. suggests that a number of white Corpsmen had targeted Greene, and did so with impunity following a key transitional event in the nation.

In March of 1885, the Republican administration of Chester Arthur turned over the presidency to Democrat Grover Cleveland. Gone now were two men—ex- President Arthur and ex-Secretary of War Lincoln—who were among the nation’s strongest supporters of civil rights for blacks. Not only had Lincoln proven himself a believer, like his father before him, in extending rights to people of color, but Chester Arthur had a record on that issue surpassing any president before him, perhaps excluding Lincoln.

It was Arthur who in 1854 represented a Manhattan black school teacher, Elizabeth Jennings, after she was forcibly ejected from a “whites only” omnibus (horse drawn public coach) near the current police headquarters building. The case, which Jennings and Arthur won, was considered by many to be the first one overturning “Jim Crow” transportation practices.

And so, a number of African Americans expected changes for the worse in March of 1885, as the Republican Party of Lincoln handed over the reins of government to the Democrats, who in the minds of many were still associated with race segregation and oppression of blacks.

Signal Corps records show that later in 1885, there commenced a series of punitive actions against Greene that lasted until he finally agreed to being discharged from the service.

In October of 1885, officials of the Signal Corps issued an order demoting Greene from his position in Pensacola, Fla., where he was in charge, and placing him under a white corpsman who, like Greene, was a First Class Private.

A newspaper article from those days noted that whites in Pensacola had been very unhappy with Greene’s being placed there.

Soon after the October demotion, on Nov. 14, 1885, there came a special order telling Greene to proceed to Rochester, New York, to report for duty as an assistant to Sgt. Edward W. McGann, who was in charge of that station.

A Strange Accusation

Greene’s most difficult period would come in the ensuing months, through 1886 and 1887, as he worked there in Rochester.

One claim against Greene seems especially unlikely, given that he had excelled in the militaristic environment of City College, where there was a strict code of conduct and punctuality in those years. With rules that were later deemed excessive, the college gave out demerits for bad conduct or lateness, and would dismiss students who accumulated a hundred demerits in a semester, according a 1907 book The City College: Memories of Sixty Years, by Philip J. Mosenthal (Class of ’83) and Charles F. Horne (Class of ’89).

Given that background, the accusation of August 22, 1886 would seem out of character for Greene.

On that day, Second Lieutenant F.M.M. Beall, a Signal Corps inspector, charged that Greene had filed a false report of his weather observations. Beall was effectively accusing Greene of lying by several minutes about the time on the report.

Beall says that at 2:59 p.m. he went to the office where Greene was supposed to be completing his three o’clock report, but that Greene was not in the office. Beall maintained that Greene had therefore lied about filing a three o’clock report and put this in a letter of reprimand to higher-ups.

In his written defense, obtained also from the National Archives, Greene maintained that he had heard a three o’clock bell as he was leaving the office to file the report and believed that was in fact the time; he also maintained that he had completed the report no earlier than 2:56 p.m.

Given the tone of Beall’s threatening letter, Greene apparently felt compelled to add a plea that “I may be given a chance to prove myself, by the strictest obedience to orders and faithful performance of duty in the future, worthy to remain in the service.”

In the coming months, the sergeant who was Greene’s immediate supervisor, Sgt. McGann, would go on to compile a list of people to whom Greene owed money, passing that information on to higher-ups.

(Curiously, that accusation seems to be contradicted by an August 23, 1886 “Inspector’s Confidential Report” in which Beall explicitly stated that Greene was “not in debt.”)

Nonetheless, a coup de grace came nine months later, as Sgt. McGann asserted that on the morning of May 19, 1887, Rochester authorities had arrested Greene “in a low colored gambling resort…bringing disgrace on this office and the service …”

Signal Corps authorities said at the time that Greene admitted the offenses and agreed that he was not fit to remain in the service.

Racial Code Words

The final official document in the matter was written May 21, 1887 by the new Signal Corps Commander, Gen. Adolphus W. Greely.

The letter, addressed to the Adjutant General, is extraordinary in that it states its case against Greene even while opening the door to a belief that Green’s race may have been a factor.

Greely wrote that his predecessor (Gen. Hazen, who had died the previous January) had been afraid to take action against Greene because, having opposed Greene’s enlistment in the first place, Hazen feared he would be accused of race bias.

“The present Chief Signal Officer has no such fears,” he wrote, referring to himself in the third person and adding that he “believes that his four years service as an officer of colored troops renders it certain that any recommendation which he makes in this case cannot be considered as emanating from an officer prejudiced against the colored race.”

It’s worthy of mention that Hazen himself, three years earlier, had said virtually the same thing—that his own experience commanding “colored” troops precluded any accusation of racism.

Explaining his position back then against Greene’s enlistment, Hazen had written: “I have never had prejudice on account of color…and was one of the first officers in the regular army commissioned to command regular colored troops.” (That letter of July 23, 1884 to then Secretary of War Lincoln is in a compilation put together by Scholarly Resources of Wilmington, Delaware, titled Blacks in the Military: Essential Documents.)

In successfully recommending Greene’s dismissal in 1887, the new Signal Corps Commander, Gen. Greely, went on to explain that he “does not recommend a court-martial, on the ground of the expense to the United States and because of the experience the Army has once had in trying a colored cadet, when a degree of public excitement entirely disproportionate to the case was engendered.”

The last reference was apparently to the case of Lt. Henry O. Flipper, who in 1877 became the first African-American to graduate from West Point. In 1880 Flipper, serving as quartermaster at Fort Davis in Texas, was charged with embezzlement and court-martialed. Though acquitted on some charges, he was found guilty of “conduct unbecoming an officer” and given a dishonorable discharge.

For the rest of his life Flipper tried to convince the country he was falsely accused. In 1999, more than half a century after his death, President Bill Clinton pardoned him.

Of course, it was a particular blow to full disclosure that Gen. Greely chose not to court-martial Greene. That decision had the effect of preventing the public—and history— from judging more fairly the actions taken against Greene. A full military trial would have required both sides to put their cases on the public table.

Little was published about the Greene affair in 1887, other than reports in the Army and Navy Journal and The New York Times citing official statements against Greene, who was only 22 years old as he left the service that he had once so deeply and patriotically wanted to represent.

Why So Patriotic?

Reviewing the Greene case, a question comes naturally to mind. Why did a young man so talented and with stellar credentials choose to enter the U.S. Army as a private, with relatively scant pay, scarcely more than a dollar a day?

Other members of the Class of ’84 had aspirations more conventional for the best and brightest of New York. One class member, Julius Mayer, would go on to become the State Attorney General. Another, Alfred Stieglitz, did not complete studies leading to his degree, but achieved great renown as a photographer and art collector.

One answer to the question why Greene was obsessed with joining the army lies in the nature of mid-19th century City College. It was then a virtual “child of West Point” with “West Point traditions of strict discipline and the importance of higher mathematics, of drawing, and of thorough training in English,” says the book, The City College: Memories of Sixty Years. Also, the first two CCNY presidents—Horace Webster and Webb—were West Point alumni.

Add to the above another fact—that large numbers of City grads not only served during the Civil War, but were among the soldiers who put down the 1863 Manhattan Draft Riots, in which mobs of Irish immigrants beat and lynched local blacks—and one can see why service in the U.S. army would have had a singular appeal for a native black New Yorker like Greene.

After his discharge in June of 1887, Greene returned to live with his father Hallet, his mother Susan, and his sisters Cornelia and Lucia back on W. 31st Street. Then sometime after 1900 he married an immigrant from Guyana named Lillian, with whom he raised at least one child, a daughter named Louise, according to Census records.

Greene took jobs where he could find them, but it seems he did not secure anything remotely commensurate with the promise he once showed as a student at City College decades earlier.

Nineteenth-century Manhattan was an especially rough place for African- Americans. And in the decades after the Civil War, whites increasingly came to feel that it “was time…to come to an understanding with the Best Men of the South, end misguided reform efforts, and unite in defense of property,” says the 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, written by Brooklyn College History Professor Edwin G. Burrows and Graduate Center and John Jay History Professor Michael Wallace.

Unhappy in New York, most of the Greene family moved to Fairfield, Conn. and William went first to Brooklyn and then to New Britain, Conn. In the early 1920s in New Britain he worked at the R and E Manufacturing company. A 1928 town directory lists his job as janitor. By 1931 he and his wife no longer showed up in the address listings, and the year and circumstances of their deaths are unknown so far.

But in Fairfield, a distant relative (by marriage) is still living in the house that William Hallett Greene’s parents occupied in the early 1900’s. Her name is Edith Gibson Rodgers. She does missionary work with the First Baptist Church of Stratford, Conn., and in her younger years had been a psychiatric nurse.

Fascinated when told Greene’s story, Rodgers allowed CUNY Matters to spend hours in the dusty and extremely cluttered attic, where a search turned up a number of old documents and old correspondences, some of which bore William Hallett Greene’s name but said virtually nothing beyond mentioning him.

Among the items at the house was a 19th-century catechism of the Westminster Assembly, bearing William H. Greene’s signature. The book began with the theological question “What is the chief and highest end of man?” followed by the answer: “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him for ever.”

Rodgers said she believes the actions taken by Army superiors against Greene were “atrocities” and that Greene should be considered a hero for what he went through, whether he gambled or not.

“The burdens on his shoulders were ten times greater than anything black soldiers faced” during World War II, she said.

“The whip might not have been lashing at his back but it was lashing his mind,” Rodgers added. “He had all this education and they tried to break him. But they couldn’t break him.”

Greene must have felt somewhat broken, but how much so is a question that his haunting 19-year-old eyes cannot answer.


This article was written by Ron Howell, editor of CUNY Matters. He benefited from advice and assistance given by Hunter College African-American History Professor Joanne Edey-Rhodes, a genealogy expert. Some research also was done by Charles DeCicco, editor of The Alumnus, City College’s alumni magazine. At the City College Archives, Professor Sydney Van Nort made available relevant archival materials from the 19th-century.