First Ordained African-American Methodist Woman and Missionary to Appalachia
Sallie Crenshaw was twice a ground-breaker in African-American women’s ordination in the Methodist tradition. In 1936, she was one of the two first African-American woman ordained as a local elder in the Methodist Episcopal Church, in the East Tennessee Conference. Then in 1956 she was one of the first two women to be received into full membership of the East Tennessee Conference, part of the segregated Central Jurisdiction.
Yet Crenshaw’s groundbreaking ministry extends further. Born of African American and Native American ancestry, she studied theology at Gammon Theological Seminary. In 1930, she was appointed as a licensed preaching missionary of the Board of Missions, an appointment that allowed her to get around prohibitions against female ordination. She was assigned as a missionary to the coalfields of Appalachia in eastern Tennessee, western Virginia, and West Virginia. She served as a supply pastor to over a dozen churches during this phase of her ministry.
Then in 1947, the East Tennesse Conference asked her to explore ministry opportunities in the Chattanooga area. She founded the St. Elmo Mission in the neighborhood of the same name, initially holding services in a rented tavern. By the following spring, she had rented an old house and opened a day care and feeding program for children. The daycare was initially called the Good Shepherd Fold day care, but was renamed in Crenshaw’s honor as the Sallie Crenshaw Bethlehem Center in 1968. Crenshaw remained a board member of the organization she founded even after her retirement in 1971.
Guy Moore, “Rev. Sallie Crenshaw was a woman ahead of her time,” Times Free Press (April 17, 2016), https://www.timesfreepress.com/news/opinion/columns/story/2016/apr/17/moore-rev-sallie-crenshaw-8211-womahead-her-t/360197/.
“Sallie A. Crenshaw,” General Commission on Archives and History, http://gcah.org/history/biographies/sallie-a.-crenshaw.
“History of the Bethlehem Center and our United Methodist Roots,” The Bethlehem Center, https://www.thebeth.org/104.23.
“Bethlehem Center Annual Breakfast Fundraiser Will Be Feb. 22,” theChattanoogan.com (Feb. 13, 2007), https://www.chattanoogan.com/2007/2/13/101624/Bethlehem-Center-Annual-Breakfast.aspx.
“Sallie A. Crenshaw,” The Historical Marker Database, https://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=51691.