Voices of the Civil Rights Movement, a multimedia collaboration of Comcast NBCUniversal and the Equal Justice Initiative, celebrates Black History Month with the third in a series of four essays that pay tribute to American civil rights leaders’ push for racial equality.
At 104 years old, Marie L. Greenwood is full of stories – memories of marrying William, the love of her life; adventures raising four children; and being enchanted by the music of a young, rising performer known as Nat King Cole. Just as fresh are memories of her journey to desegregate public schools in Denver.
"I never even thought about being a pioneer or a trailblazer, but that’s what I was called," explained Greenwood. She is recognized as Denver’s first tenured black teacher, an accomplishment she says did not come easily.
Her first encounters with schoolteachers – and racial segregation in schools – occurred while attending public, predominately black elementary and high schools leading up to and during the Great Depression.
While discrimination in schools placed many restrictions on children that looked like Greenwood, her parents instilled in her a belief that education has the power to meaningfully change one’s outlook on, and standing in, life. She recalled, "They wanted me to have an education so that I did not have to do the menial, hard work that they were doing. … And the only way I could do it was to always do my level best." Greenwood did not simply take this message to heart; she adopted it as her credo, trusting she could make a difference for countless fellow youth as an educator.
Greenwood at age 20, during her undergraduate studies.
Greenwood was pursuing a bachelor’s in kindergarten-primary education in 1935, with the goal of becoming a teacher. Scant diversity and disparity among teaching staffs were apparent. People of color were assigned substitute teaching roles and low-level administrative work. Most troublingly, her ambitions were often brushed off or evoked derisive laughter.
Greenwood was not discouraged. Sensing winds of change in the Mile High City, she took action: "I took the [teaching] test, and to my amazement, I was selected as … [a teacher] of color in the Denver Public Schools."
It was the culmination of years of sacrifice, and Greenwood was thrilled. But she was also aware that the offer to become a first grade teacher was entry level. An opportunity for tenure – prestigious job security and the highest accolade for teachers – might never come.
Nonetheless, Greenwood knew that accepting the job would mean achieving a personal goal, and much more.
"I had to keep that door open for other minorities to come in," Greenwood said of her motivation to accept the job. Fully aware of the long-range academic and social challenges to becoming a teacher, she hoped her success would motivate other minority teachers and challenge any detractors.
"All I heard all my life [from my parents] was that, ‘no matter what, you’re as good as anybody else. … With hard work, you could make it,’" Greenwood reflected. But for a black teenage girl growing up in 1920s Colorado, "making it" was subjective – and to her academic advisor at Denver’s East High School, expectations were minimal.
"I was the only brown freshman in the whole class. … The girls’ advisor … was checking on the freshmen to see if they were planning to go to college. I said, ‘well I am planning to go to college.’ She looked up at me as though to say, ‘you must have lost your mind.’
"She informed me that if I went to college, ‘my father would be just losing money because all I could ever do would be to work in somebody’s house.’
"I just said, ‘I’m going to college,’ and I walked out."
It was this interaction that motivated Greenwood to attain "a GPA so high" that she was awarded a scholarship to the Colorado State College of Education to earn her bachelor’s. "And," Greenwood beamed, "we all know what the result was."
After completing college, and accepting the first grade teaching job at Denver’s Whittier School, Greenwood would become the first black teacher to achieve permanent tenure in Denver Public Schools – in just three years.
"Teachers come in all colors – dedicated teachers, prepared teachers – and it had nothing to do with the color of [their] skin if they could do the job. And I proved that," Greenwood reflected.
The doors had opened for Greenwood, and soon after, the school board hired more black teachers in Denver’s public schools.
Denver’s Marie L. Greenwood Elementary School, following its 2001 open.
Greenwood’s commitment to education and to dismantling racial barriers was recognized again by Denver Public Schools in 2001. Instead of a new teaching position, she was offered a school named in her honor: Marie L. Greenwood Elementary. She reflected: "To have lived this long and have that kind of recognition ... just feels so good. ...I never dreamed anything like this could possibly happen to me."
Greenwood has been retired for several decades, but her passion for teaching young minds is still evident. Current students, parents and staff often visit Greenwood in an independent living facility, where she delights in catching up on the latest news from the school. She shared, "It’s just such a blessing that anyone from my school thinks enough of me to keep in touch and let me know what’s going on."
Greenwood poses at home with her "one-of-a-kind" mug.
And, it wouldn’t be a visit to Mrs. Greenwood’s without story time. Reading to the children — even at age 104 — is what she enjoys most. It’s her platform to connect with, teach, and impact young people – and relay her standard high expectations:
"[Children today] need to know about those of us who worked and kept going. … They have to learn, nothing is free. ... Always be your best. Even if you’re digging ditches, you dig the best ditch."