Wanda Green - Pioneering Teacher, Administrator and Civic Leader

One Bratenahl Place
Wanda Jean Green
Wanda Jean Green

Wanda Jean Green was a strong, powerful, and kind woman with the best interest of children uppermost in her mind. She was committed to the care and education of children and took on anyone to make sure children got the very best they could get in the Cleveland public school system. She later led guidance counselors districtwide, helped to open the Adult Education Center, oversaw controversial federal Desegregation orders, and endured an administration widely seen as bloated, fragmented, and politicized.

Wanda Jean Liggens was born on February 6, 1929, in Toledo, Ohio. Her childhood was not that of a textbook happy family. At age five, a hit-and-run driver injured Wanda. The authorities tracked him down, and the driver made arrangements to send her and her family until she turned twenty-one. He bought the home that she and her parents lived in, perhaps the only five-year-old in Ohio who owned their own home. Wanda never met him and never knew his name, but he was instrumental in Wanda receiving an education.

Her mother was way ahead of her time, especially with desegregation. Wanda attended Gunckel Elementary School, a poor, overcrowded school in Toledo, Ohio. Students from grades 1 to 9 were all in the same room. Wanda’s mother took nine women and fourteen students and had them change clothes every two hours. The school superintendent couldn’t tell one from the other, and by the end of the day, he thought there were so many students that he had no choice but to take the eighth and ninth graders and send them to junior high.

School was difficult for Wanda because she was a black student and the daughter of a rebellious woman. As a result, she was punished by receiving low grades. One teacher whose class she excelled in gave her a “C.” She was eventually told that the school had warned the teacher not to give Wanda a grade higher than a “C” or there would be trouble.

She loved science and math from childhood. Frustrated by local schools, her mother put her on a train to Denver, Colorado, to live with an aunt. Money was hard to come by, so she worked from 4:00 to midnight every day. She graduated from Manual High School after skipping the 11th grade.

Wanda returned to Toledo and continued her craving for more education. She knew that her chances of going to college were thin. She went to the church and asked everyone for assistance. Some people told her she was a fool, but one person paid attention.

Ella Stewart, a local pharmacist, told her of Storer College, a black college in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where the end of slavery began. The college would take her, but she needed to work while she was there, so Ella Stewart bought her a train ticket, and her mother gave her fifteen cents, and a frightened sixteen-year-old was on her way to college.

Once there, she met Dean Johnson, who taught chemistry in addition to running the school. Wanda was able to work in the chemistry lab and then conduct a lab class. Dean Johnson encouraged her to attend the University of Toledo and get a chemistry degree. He promised her a job as soon as her degree was obtained.

With all “A’s” in her courses at Storer, she went to Toledo University and ran into another snag. Storer was not an accredited college, and the university wanted her to re-do her freshman year. Wanda was beside herself. Not only did she not have the money to pay for an extra year of college, but also she wanted to hurry up and get her degree because a job was waiting for her.

She went before the Academic Committee and offered to take a “C” for every “A” she earned at Storer. Within a week, the committee accepted her plan.

The Dean of the Chemistry Department wouldn’t let a black woman from an unaccredited school enter his program. She stormed into the president’s office to make her case to him and prevailed.

The chemistry professor was still not happy,  and he was not ashamed to say that he did not want blacks or women in chemistry.

Wanda studied hard and did all the assignments, but she didn’t know the answer every day when the professor asked her a question. Finally, one night while studying, she glanced ahead a few chapters and realized he asked her questions two to three chapters ahead. She studied above the standard assignments and was finally able to answer his questions.

Soon he changed his plan and moved up a chapter. Finally, Wanda told him she knew what he was doing and then walked out of the classroom in tears.

The sixty-five men in her class, mostly World War II veterans, came to get her and told her that it would never happen again. The next day the professor asked her a question far beyond what they were learning. A voice from the back of the room “suggested” that he reconsider his question, and murmurings throughout the room let him know that everyone agreed. The professor withdrew his question.

Wanda graduated from the University of Toledo in 1950 with a B.S. degree in chemistry. Unfortunately, Storer College had closed, so the promised job was not available. Instead, she went to work as a chemistry teacher at Leland College, founded in 1870 as a college for black students in Baker, Louisiana.

While at Lealand, she met and married Reginald Green, one of her students. They had a daughter, Michelle Renee Green. Unfortunately, her marriage ended when her husband took off for California. Wanda returned to Toledo with her daughter and, in 1954, received a B.A. degree in secondary education from the University of Toledo.

Within six months, she received an offer to teach mathematics at Rawlings Junior High School in Cleveland. Before starting, she was told to meet with Dr. E. E. Butterfield, deputy superintendent of Cleveland schools. She stood in front of his desk as he cavalierly picked up the Plain Dealer and began to read. He continued to read. She continued to stand, and the time continued to advance. Finally, after twenty minutes, she turned to leave the room. Dr. Butterfield asked her to have a seat. He explained that she was going to be dealing with hoodlums and thugs and patience was mandatory. He wanted to know how long she could hold her temper.

She continued to work with the Cleveland system for the next thirty-eight years. Her relationship with the school board was always contentious. She was not willing to accept some of the low standards for students, especially black students.

In 1968, she was offered a transfer to East High School as one of three assistant principals. The move was not a promotion. Instead, the transfer brought her numerous discipline problems. Nevertheless, she was a year short of completing her doctorate at New York University and had no choice financially, academically, and professionally but to accept the position.

In 1969, Wanda Green became Doctor Wanda Green, having received her Ph.D. from New York University in Guidance and Administration. Unfortunately, she received little support for this accomplishment from her family. No one came to Madison Square Garden to see her receive her degree. They felt that she was leaving her roots as she climbed the academic ladder. The one exception was her fifteen-year-old daughter Michelle who prodded her to follow her thesis and typed her final paper.

One year after East High, appointed principal of Empire Junior High School, becoming the first female appointed principal of a co-ed secondary school. She didn’t see herself as an administrator but accepted the challenge and continued to work fourteen-to-seventeen-hour days.

She was shot at while at Empire. She campaigned to rid the school of guns. When a student insisted on his legal right to bring a gun, she taught him in the office, refusing to endanger the children. He eventually disarmed.

Wanda spent the next eight years overseeing guidance counselors districtwide. She clashed with Superintendent Peter Carlin, and he wiped out her job.

She became deputy director for legal affairs and community relations in the Office on School Monitoring and Community Relations that oversaw desegregation for the federal court.

She was one of two finalists for superintendent in 1985 but lost to Al Tutela and was turned down at other times. She sued unsuccessfully, alleging race and sex discrimination. After holding several different jobs, she retired in 1987 as acting chief of research and analysis.

During the School Board’s long and stormy meetings, she counted fewer than five minutes per night on education. She called for foreign language requirements, ninth-grade algebra requirements, and more extracurriculars.

Green was also tough on parents. She told a forum in 1985, “I will not give you the privilege of being a parent and walking away from your child, leaving him or her at the school’s doorstep.” She urged parents to visit the schools despite what they considered a chilly welcome from school officials.

Wanda died on January 4, 2013, at her Bratenahl home. She was indeed an extraordinary person.