Black History Month
Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene ( January 23,1931- January 10,1984) was an African American radio, television, and media personality, activist and hero.
As a radio disc jockey, Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene Jr. was a beacon of societal truth for two decades in the black community of Washington D.C. Petey wasn’t afraid to “tell it like it is” as he spoke out about social injusticies and championed racial pride and equality during a time of radical change in America. “Petey”Greene was born and raised in Washington, D.C. His childhood was spent at 23rd and L Streets NW in an era of depression and poverty. He was raised by his maternal grandmother, Maggie “A’nt Pig” Floyd, and attended Stevens Elementary School. He dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade and enlisted in the U.S. Army. His tour of duty sent him overseas to fight in the Korean War before being discharged in 1953 for drug abuse. Upon his return home he began to drink heavily. In 1960, he was convicted of armed robbery at a small grocery store, and imprisoned at Lorton Reformatory with a ten-year sentence.
While in prision, Petey began to hone his skills as a disc jockey in Lorton’s work program. Using the P.A. system, he was allowed twenty minutes each morning and evening to address his fellow inmates. His garrulous delivery, infused with the flavor of the street, resonated with the inmates. Captilizing on his trusted voice, Greene persuaded a fellow inmate to climb to the top of a water tower to threaten suicide so that he would be able to “save his life” by talking him down. “It took me six months to get him to go up there,” he later recalled. This percieved act of herioism, combined with his generally good behavior allowed for his release in 1965.
Soon after his release, Petey was hired by Dewey Hughes, the program director for the radio station WOL-AM. Dewey first became aware of Petey’s talent during a chance meeting in Lorton prison as he was visiting his brother, a fellow inmate. Taking a big chance with his own career, Dewey believed in Petey’s voice and put him on the air. “Rapping With Petey Greene” was an immediate hit with the urban community and eventually became a daily staple. His appeal rapidly grew, and he soon found himself hosting his own television show, “Petey Green’s Washington”, on WDCA-AM. On March 8,1978 he was invited as a guest to the White House by President Jimmy Carter to honor visiting Yugoslavian President Josip Broz Tito. He famously quipped to the Washington Post that he “stole a spoon” during the evening gala.
Concurrent with his radio career , television was another natural media outlet for Petey. He co-hosted the local show “Where It’s At” which addressesed employment issues and opputunities for the African American community. In addition, his public access television program “Petey’ Greene’s Washington” aired in the city for many years, providing an expanded forum for his community outreach, commentary, and street flavored humor. “Adjust the color of your television” was his intro to the program. Amoung the thousands of devout listeners that Petey impacted daily, he also made an impression on future radio and television personality, Howard Stern. During an appearance on “Petey Green’s Washington,” Howard stated, ” I have learned more from your show….I listen to your show and (when) I go on I use your material.” Petey quipped, ” They might not like us but they don’t change the dial.”
Petey not only counselled from the airwaves but was a fully engaged and a visible citizen. Soon after his release from Lorton prison, he founded “Efforts for Ex-Convicts” EFFEC an organization devoted to helping former prisoners succeed in legitimate ways. His efforts helped to house ex-convicts, provide conuseling, and job support. He became a community activist, working for the non-profit United Planning Orgianization which provided human services to the people of D.C. The Organization later named its Congress heights office (in Southeastern D.C.) The Ralph Waldo Petey Greene Community Service Center. He railed against poverty and racism on his shows and on the streets, participating in demonstrations during the height of his popularity.
After his death from cancer, 10,000 mourners lined up, in below freezing conditions, outside Washington’s Union Wesley AME Zion Church to pay their last respects. This was the largest memorial service gathering for a non-government official in D.C.’s history. Greene had four children—Ralph, Petra, Renee, and Melanie. He is portrayed by Don Cheadle in the 2007 film Talk To Me, which is based on his life.