Born around 1900 in LaGrange, Ga., of Irish, Cherokee and African-American descent, Sallie Alford Crenshaw was reared in Chattanooga. A July 3, 1977, News-Free Press article described her as a "tiny, caramel-colored lady." She described herself as "born 50 years ahead" of her time.
A graduate of the Chattanooga public schools, she attended Tennessee State Normal School, Gammon Theological Seminary, Clark College and the University of Nebraska. She was the first African-American to attend Tennessee Wesleyan College. Hers was a practical schooling that included courses in Christian education, church administration, missions, religious work in urban areas, hymnology, Bible, recreation and child care. Since ordination was closed to women, she became a missionary under the auspices of the Methodist Board of Missions.
By 1930, she was living in Virginia. Licensed to preach in 1930, she received deacon's orders in 1934 and elder's orders in 1938.