The life and legacy of civil rights pioneer and educator Sarah Moore Greene

Sarah Moore Greene was one of the most influential civil rights activists and community leaders in Knoxville. A career educator, she touched hundreds of lives directly through her teaching and later still as a civil rights activist, elected officer, and venerated community elder.

She was the first black member of the Knoxville Board of Education and a delegate from Tennessee to the Republican National Convention. She was also a former state and local president of the NAACP who, over the years, fought for desegregation and civil rights in schools and schools across the wider community.

Every year around her birthday, she was honored by the students at Sarah Moore Greene Magnet Technology Academy with an event she looked forward to every year.

The school was named after Ms. Greene in 1974 and became a magnet school with a focus on technology in 1996.

The Sarah Moore Greene Magnet Technology Academy sign wishes Mrs. Sarah Moore Greene a happy birthday on Wednesday, February 24, 2010.

Sarah Moore Greene was also a key figure in Knoxville history. She was the daughter of a former slave who began teaching in a one-room schoolhouse, then became a civil rights activist, then a political and community leader.

In 2010 News Sentinel published a four-part series about Ms. Greene on her 100th birthday.

Here are excerpts from this series reported and written by former News Sentinel educational author Lola Alapo:

Early years

Greene, the daughter of a former slave and railroad chef, was born in Madisonville in 1910. Her father, Ike Moore, came to East Tennessee after his emancipation in 1865 to help build railroads. Sterling, Ky. Here he met her mother Mary Toomey, who fed railroad workers.

As one of four siblings, Greene was 5 years old when her mother died. Her father, who raised the children himself, cooked basic meals.

Greene attended Tennessee A&I in Nashville, then a two-year junior college, where she studied math and worked in the school’s pastry shop.

“I still make good rolls and good cakes to this day,” she said.

The school is now known as Tennessee State University.

At age 24, she married William Greene, but noted that she kept her maiden name Moore, a slave name, as a tribute to her father.

Greene divorced her husband 21 years later, she said, but they remained friends.

“When he died, I was by his bed,” she said.

The couple had no children, but Greene raised a nephew and niece. She also taught hundreds of black kindergarten teachers as a teacher in the 1940s and 1950s. Many called her “Mother” or “Aunt” Greene 60 years later.

Greene was a lifelong Republican largely because her father’s owners, who were kind to him, were Republicans. She has remained loyal to the party because of Abraham Lincoln.

“He gave us our first piece of freedom,” she said.

In 2008 she crossed the party lines and voted for President Barack Obama.

“I didn’t think we’d ever have a black president,” she said. “I was hoping we had one, but I didn’t believe it.”

Sarah Moore Greene with a 1949 kindergarten class.

Years of apprenticeship

Prior to her social justice work, Greene’s teaching career began in a one-room school in Shady Grove, Monroe County.

After graduating from Tennessee A&I in Nashville, she taught 29 students from first to eighth graders at Shady Grove for two years.

When she was 21, she came to Knoxville to study at Knoxville College.

But her father got sick, so she had to work and take care of him. She worked in a variety of professions, including caring for children of a white family and as a maid in the Standard Knitting Mill.

Sarah Moore Greene with one of her early classes.  (Sarah Moore Greene / News Sentinel Special)

Greene took an interest in helping disadvantaged children and found that early training was not available to black teens.

In the 1940s, for example, she founded her own kindergarten, the Sarah Moore Greene Kiddy colleague, in the Ebenezer Baptist Church, which is now the Knoxville Civic Coliseum.

The establishment of early childhood education at Knoxville City Schools became a platform on which she ran for the city school board.

In 1969 she became her first black member. Early childhood education was introduced in all city schools within one year of office, she said.

Greene ran her school for 20 years.

Civil rights efforts

Greene has been involved in the work of churches and organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People who “serve to uplift our people”.

From sit-in strikes in restaurants to negotiating with city officials and business owners, Ms. Greene garnered the support of a number of people.

“She had the ability to get along with people from all walks of life, both black and white,” said US Representative John J. Duncan Jr., whose father, John J. Duncan Sr., was the legal director of the city of Knoxville during mayor the era of civil rights.

“That helped her to be effective. She didn’t turn people off.”

Many black people were arrested while trying to serve in local businesses.

“Every time they put us in jail, he asked them to release us and they did,” said Greene, who managed to stay out of jail.

Greene credits Knoxville’s peaceful integration into the diplomacy with which it was carried out.

But times were tough. She often wept over the apparent inequality caused by segregation laws.

“I would pray at night,” said Greene. “I would ask the Lord to change things, change hearts, because even when we became integrated, they (white people) still treated us differently.”

Greene said of all the changes being brought about by the national and local civil rights movement, she was particularly pleased that black and white students were able to study side by side.

“I didn’t think we could ever go to school peacefully together, but we did. We didn’t force it,” she said. “We would sit in and go in, but we never pushed ourselves in.”

Greene had said she had no regrets.

Sarah Moore Greene (center, seated) poses with family members during the 100th birthday celebration at her school of the same name, the Sarah Moore Greene Magnet Technology Academy, on Wednesday, February 24, 2010.

She was delighted to see some of the results of her life’s work: kindergarten students growing up to become church leaders; the integration of Knoxville’s businesses; and improved education for children.

At 100, Greene said she started thinking about death but was not afraid of dying.

“I just hope I don’t suffer,” she said. “Be like some of the people who wake up in heaven.”

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