Talk to Me "Petey" Greene: What You Need to Know about the Man

Oscar nominee Don Cheadle portrays Ralph Waldo Petey Greene Jr. in “Talk to Me,” directed by Kasi Lemmons.

Ill tell it to the hot; Ill tell it to the cold; Ill tell it to the young; Ill tell it to the old. I dont want no laughin, I dont want no cryin, and most of all, no signifyin–Petey Greene

As radio deejay, television personality, and activist, Ralph Waldo Petey Greene Jr. (1931-1984) was a vital force for two decades in the black community of Washington, D.C. known as Chocolate City or the other Washington. Petey spoke out about social injustices and spoke up for racial pride during a period of unprecedented change in America.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., his childhood @23rd and L Streets NW was one of Depression era-poverty. He was brought up by his maternal grandmother, Maggie Ant Pig Floyd, and attended Stevens Elementary School. But, as a teen, he started breaking the law and drinking and doing drugs. Arrests and reformatory time quickly followed. While still a teenager, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, and later served in the Korean War. Upon his return home, he began drinking heavily. In 1960, a conviction for armed robbery landed him in jail.

In Virginias Lorton Prison, Peteys life began to change for the better. He honed his disc jockey (a.k.a. deejay, a.k.a. dj) skills in Lortons work program. His grandmother sent him records to play in prison, but died while he was still incarcerated. Petey was allowed to address his fellow prisoners over the P.A. system in morning and night shifts of 20 minutes apiece. He found that he was good at djing, and sensed that this was something he could pursue upon his release which he began to apply himself towards.

He did indeed manage to effect an earlier release; his 10-year sentence (or, dime) was commuted into an early parole (nickel) midway through, when he helped talk a fellow inmate down from a suicide threat atop a flagpole. There was some question about whether Petey had convinced the man to scale the flagpole, but in any case it was not the last time he would personally convince someone not to kill themselves. Once out of Lorton, he headed for a rededicated existence back in the Washington he knew as his home.

Dewey Hughes, the program director for radio station WOL-AM, took a chance on Petey. Dewey had first met Petey in Lorton as a fellow inmate of Deweys brother, and put Petey–who had already done a stand-up act at venues around the city–on the air. Rapping with Petey Greene became a lightning rod for the community. WOL reached metropolitan listeners not only in Washington, D.C. but also in Maryland and Virginia.

Dewey continued managing Petey for years before (in 1980) buying WOL, which then became the foundation for Radio One, Inc. (now the U.S. seventh-largest radio broadcasting company, and the largest primarily for African-American and urban listeners).

Petey did not only advocate from the airwaves. Never to sit on the sidelines again after his prison time, Petey was a fully engaged and visible citizen, exhorting his community to think and to act for a Cool City; as in, getting proper job training (through the Washington Concentrated Employment Program) and education (If you cant read, you cant do anything, he would say), and registering to vote.

Almost immediately upon his release from prison, he co-founded the volunteer-driven Efforts for Ex-Convicts, formed to provide shelter, counseling, and job support for D.C. ex-cons during the first few months of their release; for example, he would encourage those with convictions for stealing or shoplifting to channel that expertise into legitimate work as store detectives. Petey also addressed youth groups and school assemblies to discourage children and teens from starting down the path to incarceration. He also worked as a YMCA job counselor, and kept at his stand-up act as well.

With his Ph.D. in poverty, he would encourage community attention be specifically paid to the needs of the poor and the old; he was not afraid to name names and provide addresses for his listeners to agitate for change.

Petey had grown up just a few blocks from the White House, and in March 1978 he finally got to visit his neighbors when he attended a dinner (for the President of Yugoslavia) as the guest of an invitee. While there, he took the opportunity to speak with President Jimmy Carter and he claimed steal a spoon. From the jail house to the White House, he noted.

Concurrent with his radio career, television was another natural outlet for Petey. He co-hosted the local show Where Its At, which addressed employment issues and opportunities. Subsequently, his public access program Petey Greenes Washington (also later the name of his radio show) aired in the city for years, providing an expanded forum for his community outreach, commentary, and humor. Adjust the color of your television was his intro to the program.

Among the thousands of listeners and/or viewers whom he made an impact on were future radio and television personalities. One of them was a Washington, D.C. disc jockey named Howard Stern. The latter as ever caused a stir with his guest appearances on Peteys television show. In one (with longtime colleague Robin Quivers in the studio audience), Howard told Petey, Ive learned more from your show I listen to your show, and I go on and use your material. Petey mused, They might not like us, but they dont change the dial.

In paving the way for other deejays, some might say that Petey was an original shock jock, but his own history and commitment to his community combined to make him more of a trailblazer in talk radio.

Petey won two local Emmy Awards in the 1970s, and Petey Greenes Washington was later broadcast nationally by the then-newly launched cable channel Black Entertainment Television (BET).

In his later years, Petey turned to religion more than he had prior, and was finally able to quit drinking. He died of cancer in January 1984. Scores of D.C. residents at least 10,000, and some estimates were double that amount paid their respects in below-freezing temperatures later that month at a memorial service, which was the largest gathering for a non-government official in D.C. history.

The nonprofit United Planning Organization (formed to provide human services to the people of D.C.), where Petey worked as an employee and community advocate/consultant beginning in the late 1960s, later named its Congress Heights office (in southeastern D.C.) the Ralph Waldo Petey Greene Community Service Center. The Center still stands today, at 2907 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE.

Peteys life story, as he told it to Lurma Rackley in the early 1980s, was published in 2003 as “Laugh If You Like, Aint a Damn Thing Funny.”

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