When Eloise Greenfield was born on May 17, 1929, African-Americans were undeniably an underclass in America, but their portrayal in popular culture was even worse. How could future generations see their potential if all they saw were stereotypes and horrifying news accounts about people who looked like them? Greenfield set out to change the future by giving the children hope in books that didn’t lie to them.
Parmele, North Carolina, was the birthplace of Eloise (née Little) Greenfield. Racism would have been part of her young life, but once the Great Depression hit months later, things would have gotten worse as competition and fear fueled racial hatred and fears. Greenfield recalls that racism was particularly noticeable when her parents took the children to visit grandparents further south.
Life in the big city of Washington, D.C., where the Little family moved to live, would have been quite different from Parmele, though racism was still common. The family lived in the Langston Terrace Dwellings, which were built between 1935 and 1938 under the Public Works Administration program, created by the federal government. Langston Terrace included gardens and a communal courtyard with statues that doubled as children’s playground equipment. A terra cotta frieze along the courtyard told the history of African-Americans from enslavement through World War I. The residents put their all into the complexes and made homes, not merely apartments, which explains why Greenfield has fond memories of her life there, as she writes in her semi-autobiography, Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir (1979).
Greenfield attended Miner Teachers College for three years until she realized that her shyness and desire to teach were in conflict. The school was considered the elite for training African-American teachers, who worked around the country, so deciding to stay or not would have been a difficult choice but one she made nonetheless. Upon leaving college in 1949 she got a job at the U.S. Patent Office. Like most authors, she continued with the full-time job even after getting married to Robert J. Greenfield and having two children, because writing is “life work” for her.
Greenfield wrote poems and short stories throughout the 1950s, but her first publication was a poem in 1962 in the Hartford Times, an afternoon daily paper. By 1971 she had joined the District of Columbia Black Writers Workshop, where she worked as well as found inspiration and feedback. Her first children’s book, Rosa Parks (1973), won the 1st Carter G. Woodson Book Award from the National Council for the Social Studies.
Greenfield remains active as an author and speaker today; she even has an active Twitter account. Her most recent book to date is from 2016: In the Land of Words, a collection of 21 poems. She has received numerous awards for her lifetime of work to promote African American literature and children’s literature as well as for individual books, stories, and poems. Her works include historical topics, slices of life, and insights on the acts of writing and reading. Let’s conclude with a repeated stanza from her poem Harriet Tubman so we can feel the truth and the beauty of her words.
Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff
Wasn’t scared of nothing neither
Didn’t come in this world to be no slave
And wasn’t going to stay one either
(From Honey, I Love and Other Love Poems: 25th Anniversary Edition by Eloise Greenfield. Copyright © 2003 by Eloise Greenfield.)