Marie Greenwood, a pioneering Denver teacher who spent decades fighting segregation in city institutions, has died. She was 106.
Greenwood was one of the first black teachers to be hired by Denver Public Schools, which would later name an elementary school in the northeast corner of town after her.
Born on Nov. 24, 1912 in Los Angeles, Greenwood’s family moved her here from Arizona at age 13. She was a tenacious child who craved adventure and stood up to discrimination.
“It never dawned on me that I was a different color because my father had always taught me I was as good as anybody else and if I worked hard enough I could be better,” she told CPR in a 2017 interview. “And I had that attitude even though I ran into this discrimination.”
As a high school student in Denver in the 1920s, the girls’ dean told Greenwood she shouldn’t waste her parents’ money on college because she could never aspire to be more than a maid. Greenwood went on to graduate No. 3 in her class, go on to what is now the University of Northern Colorado to earn a teaching degree, and return to Denver Public Schools.
At college in Greeley, Colorado, Greenwood and other black students weren’t allowed to live on campus and were discouraged from participating in extracurricular activities.
Decades later, the university granted Greenwood an honorary doctorate, asked her to speak at a commencement and established a scholarship in her honor.
Her teaching career began at Whittier Elementary School in 1935. Her salary was $1,200 a year as one of the first African-American school teachers in Denver. She earned respect and admiration for breaking down racial barriers throughout her long career in Denver Public Schools.
A simple but powerful vision defined her earliest days as an educator: every child can learn. She was a first-grade teacher for 30 years, animated in life by the importance of early literacy programs. Up until her later years, she continued to participate in Each One Teach One, an early literacy program at the school that bore her name.
Greenwood was a bright light to hundreds of current day school children who read her biography, “By The Grace of God” each year, passing the knowledge they gained on to younger classmates. Through her 105th birthday, Greenwood regularly attended an annual school birthday luncheon with school children who would share with her their thoughts and feelings as they read her autobiography.
“She was funny, engaged and inspirational to the end,” said longtime friend and colleague Mary Ann Bash who created the Each One Teach One program.
Greenwood attended her last Friends of Marie L. Greenwood board meeting on Nov. 12. The nonprofit celebrates the life of Greenwood and gives Denver children the experiences that were life-shaping for her: intensive small-group literacy lessons, sports and outdoor activities, and a neighborhood farm-to-table program.
When Bash told Greenwood a week ago that the nonprofit had raised money for a sculpture in front of the school of her seated reading a book, Greenwood laughed, and with her characteristic wit said she hoped they'd make her legs too short to reach the ground, as was often the case with the diminutive centenarian.
Greenwood and her late husband, William Greenwood, an accountant who once ran the budget office at Denver’s now defunct Lowry Air Force Base, had four children.