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Remembering Mary Greene, North Texas Civil Rights And Education Champion

Mary Greene family
Mary Greene, a longtime KERA staffer, posing with Big Bird. She worked to expand the reach of "Sesame Street" across Texas.

Mary Lee Dodd Greene, a longtime KERA staffer who was also a North Texas civil rights and education champion, has died.

She died Wednesday morning after a brief battle with cancer. She was 83.

Mary Greene always seemed to be on a mission – a mission for equality, for education, for children.

She was committed to giving – from mornings on the farm as a child, to afternoons in front of the TV with Elmo and Cookie Monster, to late nights on the streets of South Dallas. 

Fighting for equality as a girl in East Texas

Mary was born in 1932, on a farm in the tiny East Texas town of Rosalie. It was the era of sharecropping, and the Dodd children grew up building bonds across racial lines. Mary’s son Doug Greene remembers a photo of “bare-footed Mary” running around by the barn.

He says she began a life of fighting for equality with a pair of underwear.

“They leased part of their land to African-American sharecroppers and Mary would go up play with the kids and one time she got home and our Grannie Bert, as we called her, said, ‘Mary, where are your panties, child?!’ And she said ‘Well, mom, one of the little girls didn’t have panties, so I gave her mine.”

When the Depression hit, the Dodd family had to move to Texarkana, into housing projects. Doug Greene says it was tough on the family, but both parents worked and the kids studied and kept their faith.

Mary graduated from North Texas University with a degree in early childhood education. When she got married and moved to Dallas, those early values of sharing and mobilizing stuck with her.

Connecting with South Dallas

In the 1960s, with three kids, she started going to Casa View United Methodist Church in East Dallas. Through the church, she began spending time in South Dallas, where she found out about a job opening with the Urban League of Greater Dallas -- an organization helping African-Americans secure work and housing.

Credit 'These Four Cozy Walls' / The Methodist Television, Radio and Film Commission
The Methodist Television, Radio and Film Commission
Mary Greene, a worker with the Urban League, speaks to blacks in a church in the 1960s about the power of voting.

Urban League executive director Felton Alexander hired her, but his assistant, Marilyn Clark, didn't tell her the good news.

Marilyn Clark is black; Mary Greene was white.

“I was very much involved in the Black Power Movement and I refused to call her,” Clark says, laughing. “Finally, he picked up the phone and called Mary. So that’s how we met and we’ve been friends ever since.”

Mary was already embedded in the South Dallas community, working with activists like Rev. Peter Johnson. Johnson, who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., brought the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to Dallas more than 45 years ago.  

“Our first major fight in this part of the country was with a company called Safeway supermarket chains,” Johnson says.

Video: Mary Greene talks about the power of voting

Back then, African-Americans were allowed to clean the parking lot and sweep the floors and mop the bathrooms, he says, but they couldn’t be cashiers or managers or head departments.

“Mary was right there with us," he said.

Picketing, marching, and dancing.

“Mary had this love affair with black gospel music,” Johnson remembers, laughing. “She would stand up and clap and rock of course and sometimes she would be completely out of beat, but she loved gospel music.”

Credit Make Art With Purpose / Facebook
From left: Mary Greene, Make Art With Purpose board president, with MAP Director Janeil Engelstad. “Mary Greene’s life was a life of service, and she gave to communities an organizations throughout the country, but the big gift of Mary Greene was the gift of friendship,” Englestad says.

Working toward desegregation and eliminating racism

Johnson says Mary was accepted by and worked with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Black Panthers, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the National Council of Churches.

While at the Urban League, she helped create a training program for the elimination of racism for white people. Mary also served on a citizens’ group that worked toward desegregation of the Dallas Independent School District.

Johnson says her “radical” ideas were unpopular among the powers that be in parts of Dallas, and she received threats on her life.

That didn’t stop Mary from taking her kids to protests and rallies to experience the civil rights movement firsthand.

Television as a teacher

Credit A. Raymond Elliott / Facebook
Mary Greene was a longtime KERA staffer. She helped expand the reach of "Sesame Street" across Texas.

Mary believed deeply in the power of childhood education, and was frustrated by the inequality of access to good schools and programs.

Eventually, she caught the eye of Ralph Rogers, a major figure in the founding of KERA and Children’s Television Workshop. Here was her chance to use television as a tool for learning – through "Sesame Street."

Marilyn Clark also worked in Dallas with the Children’s Television Workshop with Mary. Their goal? Bring "Sesame Street" to the people who’d never heard of PBS. They brought educational programing to poor children who were at home in unregulated daycare centers, poor children who were in migrant families, in farms in South Texas, even families on reservations in New Mexico.

Clark says because Mary knew poverty first-hand, she connected with the community. Instead of delivering a blanket service that smothered homegrown ideas, she provided raw material to create a new fabric of education.

“She was very much ‘let’s work from the bottom up,’ that if there was going to be progress, you had to be part of that progress,” Clark says.  

Always fighting for children

No group was too remote or difficult to reach for Mary.

In 1974, she led the charge for “Sesame Street Goes to Prison,” which brought training, mentoring and child development activities to inmates and their kids. Her son, Doug Greene, says she never stopped fighting for children.

“Focusing on the well-being, and early childhood development, was always something she loved to get involved in and made such a big difference,” he says.  

'A life of service'

Credit Facebook
Mary Greene was a longtime KERA staffer.

Mary continued her grassroots activism as a consultant and board member to organizations across the country – from the ACLU and the League of Latin American Citizens to the Black Artist Association. Later in life she joined the board of Dallas-based Make Art With Purpose. Founder Janeil Engelstad says one project Mary helped with was creating the first-ever Spanish-English guide to the Dallas Museum of Art.

“Not only was this guide created,” Engelstad says. “It was created from the point of view from community members, so with that we had points of views that were undervalued and underrepresented across the museum world.”

Engelstad says Mary was an invaluable resource and mentor, always finding time for adults and children who weren’t given the time.

“Mary Greene’s life was a life of service, and she gave to communities and organizations throughout the country, but the big gift of Mary Greene was the gift of friendship,” Engelstad says. “There are dozens of people who will probably tell you Mary Greene is their best friend because I think with each of us she understood us, and if she didn’t understand somebody she would sit down and ask you questions in order to understand what you were feeling or you were thinking or you were experiencing. And that is a gift that will live with me for the rest of my life.”

The Mary Dodd Greene Fund has been established in her memory. Details for a memorial service are pending.

Video: Mary Greene talks about "Sesame Street Goes To Prison" program

Video: Watch 'These Four Cozy Walls,' featuring Mary Greene

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.