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Marie Greenwood Championed Minority Teachers Through 30 Years in the Classroom

  • Brian Larson

Marie Greenwood challenged racial segregation in the classroom and helped open the door for minority teachers in Colorado. Brian Larson has her story.

Sitting at a small table in the dining room of her sixth floor Denver apartment, Marie Greenwood shares the secret of successful learning. "If you start out in the very beginning, down there in that first grade, and you lay the strongest foundation you can, then those children and their teachers can build on it."

And she would know. Greenwood spent 30 years teaching first grade to countless children at just two Denver elementary schools, and shares that she has first-graders now in their 70s.

The only tangible clue to her age is a dozen pink roses in full bloom that almost dwarf the table. They were a gift for her recent 95th birthday, "although everybody guesses me around 65," she says, adding with a laugh, "and I guess I think about 65, but the body says 'whoa!'"

Though she may need to "recharge her batteries" a bit more often these days, Marie Greenwood's brown eyes sparkle and her smile widens when recounting her story of being hired as Denver's first full-time black teacher in 1935. "They put me right on contract as a probationary teacher for the fabulous salary of $1200 a year." But looking back, she says she always knew there would be obstacles to becoming a teacher.

Segregation had a strong grip on Denver in 1929, and as one of the few black students at East High School Greenwood's dream of going to college was discouraged by a guidance counselor who said she was only good enough to cook or clean for somebody else.

After hearing that, she recalls, she took out her frustrations in the girl's bathroom. "I pounded the walls and I cried and I just said out loud, 'I WILL SHOW THEM! I'm as good as anybody. I know I am going to be better than anybody.' Then I washed my face and went on back to study hall."

Greenwood then transferred to Denver's West High School, where the principal was adamant about not letting discrimination get in the way of an education. She graduated third in her class of 257. It was good enough for a full scholarship, which she used to attend Colorado Teachers College in Greeley, now the University of Northern Colorado.

Within a week of getting her Kindergarten-Primary Education degree in 1935, she was hired to teach at Whittier Elementary School in Denver's Black community. "And they watched me for those three years, would not hire another [black teacher]." She says she felt a sense of responsibility. "It meant that I had to keep that door open. And when I made permanent tenure in 1938, they hired two more." She left Whittier after 10 years to start a family with her husband Bill.

Another decade would pass before she made history again. In 1955, just one year after the U.S. Supreme Court declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional, Greenwood and her four children integrated the all-white Newlon Elementary School. "There were many minority teachers," she recalls, "but every one of them was at northeast Denver [in black communities]. They wouldn't even send one out to substitute in the white areas."

But Greenwood did substitute at Newlon before being hired to teach first grade full time, despite the objections of Denver Public School officials, who said the white parents would object.

Color was never an issue for Greenwood, who stayed at Newlon for another 18 years before retiring in 1974. She says proudly that she left as she began: as a teacher. "They couldn't get me into administration. Tried to get me to be a coordinator. No way. First black principal. Forget it. It was something that never crossed my mind because I was doing what I was happy doing."

Marie Greenwood never really left education, though, and Denver Public Schools didn't forget about her contributions either. In a rare move in 2001, they named an elementary school for her. Ruth Navarro Frazier, the principal of Greenwood Elementary admits, "even at 95, she's got more energy than I have on most days!" She says her students look up to Greenwood. "She's phenomenal and the kids know it. This is a legacy for them. And it also helps them understand that they can do this. She's a living example of overcoming all kinds of obstacles."

Greenwood reads to the students of her school at least four times a year. And she's now hoping others will read a book she wrote this year, Every Child Can Learn, chronicling some of her more memorable classroom experiences and wisdom. But getting her life story into print may take a bit longer. She's gotten as far as when she was five, she confides with a laugh, "I've a long way to go!"

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