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.
In 1935, the Board of Missions sent her to minister to the black coal miners around Bluefield, W.Va. She lived with desperately poor mining families, often sleeping on the floor, teaching them, especially the children, what she could. At the same time, she was pastoring churches in the East Tennessee Methodist Conference. Over her career, she served as supply pastor to 12 churches, including several in Chattanooga. She was later appointed as the first African-American to travel the country, preaching to both black and white congregations and promoting church desegregation.
In 1947, the East Tennessee Conference asked her to survey neglected areas in Chattanooga. Although she was initially cursed and doors were slammed in her face, she found the needs in the St. Elmo community to be particularly severe and started a mission in the neighborhood. She began with a Sunday school in a tavern that was closed on Sundays. Sixty-five children and three adults came the first Sunday. Two months later, she moved to a rented house.
Realizing she had to feed the children before she could teach them, she knew, "If they were hungry on Sunday, they were hungry on Monday and every other day." She also knew many pre-school children were left alone while their parents worked. Thus the idea for a daycare center was born. Located in the same dilapidated house, she and several other women were soon caring for 100 children. Christened "The Good Shepherd Fold," the house was eventually condemned, but Crenshaw persuaded city officials to grant her time to build a new center.
Patching together funds from private donors, businesses, a local foundation and the Methodist Board of Missions, she stood on street corners with other women asking for donations. In 1954 a new center opened at 4318 St. Elmo Ave.
Having definite goals for "The Fold," she and her staff "wanted the children to have food and clothing a sense of belonging and a feeling of being wanted and loved." Personally she wanted to establish the center when she over-heard a woman ask, "Where is there a Negro woman intelligent enough to found an institution?" Crenshaw knew then, "I had to do it then or die trying." "The Fold" cared for a daily average of 125 black and white children from age 2 though 5. She was particularly proud that the children were taught to read in kindergarten.
In 1958, Crenshaw became the Rev. Crenshaw. She was the first woman ordained by the East Tennessee Methodist Conference.
Over her career, she received many honors, including an appointment to a White House conference on children and youth.
The Sallie Crenshaw Bethlehem Center in Alton Park was named in her honor. The center continues to serve the community, especially children. Her portrait, painted by Herman Sardin, hangs in the lobby of the center, a remainder to all of this determined woman, who said of herself in the 1977 News-Free Press article, "I'm Sallie Crenshaw. I'm no common, ordinary person I do God's work and I live to the part. He provides everything for me. I just stand in front of the mirror every now and then to see how I am looking."
Crenshaw died on Dec. 12, 1986. She is buried in St. Elmo's Forest Hills Cemetery.
Gay Moore is the author of a number of books, including "St. Elmo," "Forest Hills Cemetery," "New Rules to Live By," and two children's books, "Barney and the Missing Shoes," and "Alissa and the Magnificent, Magical Hair Bow." For more information visit Chatta noogahistoricalassoc.org.