Mary Lee Dodd Greene, civil rights activist, early childhood education advocate, and active member of the Dallas community, was born to a farming family in Bogata, Red River County, Texas, on the September 26, 1932. She was the second of three children born to Birtie “Birt” Lee (Hollaway) Dodd and Henry Clay Dodd. Greene’s father worked as a public-school teacher in Red River County before transitioning to farm work. Her early years were spent near Rosalie, Texas, where her family farmed and leased farmland to African American sharecroppers (see FARM TENANCY). Family histories describe a woman who was dedicated to helping others from her youth. This description is especially highlighted in an anecdote about a young Mary returning home one day without underwear because she had given them to another child who did not have any.
During the Great Depression, struggles with money forced the Dodd family to relocate to Texarkana, Texas, where they lived in public housing. Mary spent the rest of her adolescence in Texarkana, where she attended Texas High School. After graduating she attended North Texas State College (now University of North Texas) in Denton, Texas, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education in 1953. The same year Mary graduated, she married Earl Fischer Greene. Mary had planned to begin her teaching career after her marriage but was unable to secure a teaching job because she was pregnant with her first child, Susan.
Mary and her family moved frequently in the Northeast Texas area before settling in the Casa View neighborhood of East Dallas in the 1960s. There she began attending Casa View United Methodist Church and volunteered for the church’s outreach projects to help impoverished areas of South Dallas. Through the church she found work with the Urban League of Greater Dallas, an organization that worked to helped African Americans obtain economic freedom and equality. During her time with the Urban League she held directorial positions, created anti-racism training programs, and fought for grants that helped bring school lunch and day care programs to minority neighborhoods in Dallas. As a white woman, Greene faced some initial resistance, but her dedication quickly earned the trust of fellow activists and the communities that they served. In contrast, she received death threats from whites who saw her ideas to counter systemic racism as radical.
Despite adversity and death threats, Greene persisted in her civil rights activities and worked with leaders like Rev. Peter Johnson and Juanita Craft. According to Johnson, Greene joined pickets and marches to protest racial inequality, including unequal hiring practices by Safeway supermarkets in Dallas, and she brought her children. On March 15, 1965, she was at the front of 3,000 protesters who marched through downtown Dallas streets in solidarity with voting rights activists in Selma, Alabama, who a week earlier had been attacked by Alabama law officers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as they marched from Selma to Montgomery. As she became more active in these movements, she worked with groups like the Black Panthers, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the National Council of Churches. She was also a director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Dallas and served on the Tri-Ethnic Committee, a group that fought for the desegregation of the Dallas Independent School District (see SEGREGATION and EDUCATION FOR AFRICAN AMERICANS). She advocated minority school board committees and worked with Head Start (see LITTLE SCHOOL OF THE 400) and Goals for Dallas.
In the early 1970s Greene began her efforts to bring Sesame Street to underserved communities which had unequal access to education. She worked with the Children’s Television Workshop and Ralph Rogers in order to make sure children in underrepresented communities in Dallas, South Texas, and on reservations in New Mexico were able to learn through educational programming. “Sesame Street Goes to Prison” was another program Greene pioneered in the mid-1970s. The goal of the project was to train, mentor, and provide child development programs to inmates and their children. Greene believed that it was the responsibility of the community to help empower, support, and strengthen the family as a way to help reduce recidivism. The program also included a film, which Greene presented at locations across the country after her appointment as the coordinator for the Children’s Television Workshop. Greene spoke about the issues that faced women in the prison system and advocated day care facilities in federal prisons for inmates’ children.
Mary worked with KERA, the North Texas Public Broadcasting service for radio and television, until 1990 when she retired. She continued, however, to work for social justice and educational causes by working with the ACLU, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Black Artist Association, Make Art with Purpose, political campaigns, and as a board member for First3Years. For the Make Art with Purpose non-profit organization, she helped create the first Spanish-English guide for the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA). The guide was designed for members of the community who traditionally did not have access to art museums. In 1979 Greene was recruited to serve on the White House Conference on Families during President Jimmy Carter’s administration. She was also involved in the Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns, and in 1996 President Clinton appointed her as a member of the National Institute for Literacy Advisory Board.
Mary and her husband Earl divorced in 1973, and she did not remarry. The couple had three children together—Susan Greene, Sharon Russell Greene Ramirez, and Douglas Greene. Susan Greene preceded her mother in death in 2015.
Mary Dodd Greene died of cancer on October 28, 2015, in Dallas. She was eighty-three years old. Upon her request, her body was donated to the Willed Body Program at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. In compliance with state regulations, her remains would have been cremated and therefore her burial location, if any, is unknown. At her passing, Mary requested that instead of flowers, mourners make donations to the Mary Dodd Greene Fund that KERA established in her honor. Posthumously, Greene was awarded the Infant Mental Health Advocacy Award by the non-profit First3Years. In 2017 Linda Stogner and KERA made a documentary about her life, Mary Dodd Greene: An Immovable Force, which was a finalist at the 2017 New York TV & Film Festival.