Remembering Marie L. Greenwood

Nov. 18, 2019
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Click on the image above to watch a video celebrating Marie L. Greenwood

Marie Louise Greenwood – the first African-American teacher in Denver to receive tenure – passed away Friday, Nov. 15, 2019 at 106 years old. She lived through significant moments in our country’s history, and made history herself, as detailed on the Friends of Marie L. Greenwood website.

Classroom of students from the 1960s with teacher Marie Greenwood

Marie Greenwood (left) poses with her students in the 1960s at Newlon Elementary. Greenwood was the first African-American tenured teacher in Denver, and also made DPS history as the first African-American teacher to be placed in an all-white school.

She was born Nov. 24, 1912. Ms. Greenwood began her teaching career at Whittier Elementary School in 1935 — 84 years ago — as one of the first African-American school teachers in Denver. She is highly regarded for breaking down racial barriers throughout her storied career in our district. She recalled her story of being hired in DPS in detail on The History Makers, an African-American Video Oral History Collection website:

I was sitting–it’d only been a week or so (since she had applied), and here was a letter from Denver Public Schools and you know? I was scared to open it. I was almost sure it would say, you know, the rejection. And finally, I sat and I waited and I waited, then I decided I’d better open it and it was just what you saw in my, there, that letter telling me that the Board of Education [Denver Board of Education] had, was offering me the job in 1935, as a teacher in the Denver Public Schools and I had my little pink card that was my contract to–it was actually making me, it wasn’t a permanent substitute, actually making me, giving me a contract to be a probationary teacher in the Denver Public Schools with the fabulous salary of $1,200 a year. I just, well, I let out a yell, I started to cry, my poor mother [Sarah Garret Anderson] came rushing through the kitchen to see what was going on and all I could tell her, I am going to be a teacher in the Denver Public Schools,” Greenwood said.

She shares her story in her autobiography, “By the Grace of God,” which many students at Marie L. Greenwood Academy – the Far Northeast Denver school named after her – have read in class.

A first-grade teacher for 30 years, Ms. Greenwood has guided educators throughout her career in the importance of early literacy programs. “Teaching first grade was the joy of my life,” she shared, “I believe it is there that one lays the beginning of a sound education foundation upon which a child can continue to learn successfully.”

The centenarian continued her passion by participating in Each One Teach One, created by Greenwood educator Mary Ann Bash, which aims to improve early literacy by building vocabulary through hands-on community projects. Students learn by doing, such as using architects’ tools to design their new school garden as a way to build topical vocabulary and ultimately improve their literacy. They then turn around and teach their new knowledge to younger classmates.

Ahead of her turning 105 in 2017, she attended a birthday luncheon (organized by students) in her honor.

Marie Greenwood smiles and poses with students

Marie L. Greenwood (center) poses with Greenwood Academy students during a luncheon celebrating her 105th birthday in 2017

During that luncheon, several sixth-grade students described what it was like to teach their third-grade peers as part of Each One Teach One: “We spent 14 days learning how to teach, and then we had a daily plan that helped guide us,” explained Melanie Cruz, then a sixth-grader at Greenwood Academy. “We put materials together, set up, read the book and taught students new vocabulary.”

Each One Teach One permeates through nearly every program at Greenwood Academy, including a neighborhood farm-to-table program supporting families in the Far Northeast Denver community – showcased in this DPS Features video.

The excitement students have for openly sharing their thoughts and feelings through the new words they have learned reflects the lasting impact Ms. Greenwood has had on these students — beyond having her name on the building, she has inspired a love of learning and of teaching.

As a birthday gift, the students serenaded Ms. Greenwood (watch the performance in its entirety within this video) with a choreographed rendition of India Arie’s “Better People” before she chimed in to sing a verse of her own.

“This is an honor I never dreamed I would ever have,” said Greenwood, wearing a feather boa and birthday sunglasses gifted to her by the students. “Since I know my days are limited, this is going to be one of the biggest days that I have ever had. Thank you.”

Local Media Stories Remembering Ms. Greenwood’s Life and Legacy

Read more about Greenwood’s life and legacy on 9NEWS (KUSA).

Colorado Public Radio News posted this remembrance and appreciation of Greenwood, who spent decades fighting segregation in Denver.

In a video DPS produced celebrating her legacy ahead of her 106th birthday, Greenwood still professed to believing in the simple, powerful vision she had from her earliest days as an educator: that every child can learn.