Becoming a trailblazer was never something that was on Bessie Reese Crenshaw’s mind; she wasn’t trying to break down barriers.
She simply wanted an education.
“I just wanted to go to school,” the 93-year-old Reading native explained. “I wanted to be a teacher.”
Although it wasn’t her intent, by pursuing her dream Reese Crenshaw did, in fact, become a pioneer.
When she enrolled at what was then known as Kutztown State Teachers’ College in the fall of 1946, she was the school’s only Black student. And four years later, she would become Kutztown’s first Black graduate.
Reese Crenshaw, who now lives in Maryland, was recently awarded the Kutztown University President’s Medal in recognition of her seminal accomplishment.
“Despite many challenges and even injustices in her life, she persevered and led a model life spent serving others,” Kutztown President Dr. Kenneth S. Hawkinson said. “She greatly honors us by being willing to accept this medal and allowing Kutztown University to recognize her incredible courage, resolve and compassion.
“It is essential that her amazing story be told, remembered and serve as an inspiration to our students and all those in our community.”
An early love of learning
Education was always a big part of Reese Crenshaw’s life.
Her father passed away when she was young, which meant she and her three siblings — an older and younger brother and a younger sister — were raised in Reading by a single mother. And Bessie Reese made sure her kids would never shy away from a challenge.
“My mother brought us up to work,” Reese Crenshaw said. “She taught us that if you work you can achieve your goals.”
Bessie Reese also stressed the importance of education to her children. While she spent much of her time working to support her family, she always managed to find time to expose them to educational opportunities.
“She would take us to the library, the museum — places where you could see that education was something she believed in,” Reese Crenshaw said.
Reese Crenshaw said she quickly took to her mother’s lessons. And when she and her siblings would play at home, they often would play school with her leading the imaginary classroom.
“That was the start of my dream, of having a goal to be a teacher,” she said. “I like school, I liked learning.”
Pursuing a dream
Reese Crenshaw knew that in order to move from a make-believe classroom teaching her siblings to a real one instructing actual students, she needed to go to college.
How she was going to accomplish that wasn’t so clear.
“At the time, I didn’t have any money,” she said. “I meditated on that a lot, thinking about how am I going to get to school without any money.”
Luckily, she found help. J.F. Goodwin was a local, Black physician who in 1936 started a scholarship program to help Black students realize their potential.
Reese Crenshaw earned one of his scholarships, and between that and money she would make working as a governess, she had enough to pay for school.
The next step was picking where she would attend classes. Because of her job, Reese Crenshaw needed to find a place where she could commute from her Reading home.
“I was looking for the closest school where I could go to become a teacher, and Kutztown was the only one I could think of,” she said. “I had never been there, but I had heard of it.”
When Reese Crenshaw arrived on campus to sign up for her courses, she didn’t realize that she was the only Black student doing so.
“I wasn’t aware of it,” she said. “I was sort of shocked when I arrived there, I looked around and I didn’t see any African American students. But I didn’t think too much of it, I thought that maybe they just weren’t there yet.
“I wasn’t even thinking about the idea I might be the only African American; it didn’t even cross my mind.”
Eventually, Reese Crenshaw came to the realization that she was the only Black student at Kutztown. But, she said, that didn’t have much of an impact on her time there.
She was too focused on her goal of becoming a teacher to pay it much mind.
“I didn’t have a lot of time to spend mingling with the students on the campus,” she said. “I’d finish class and get on the Bieber bus and go back home to my job.”
Reese Crenshaw said she did find a few, rare opportunities to get involved with her fellow students. She sang in the choir for a time and played a little bit of tennis.
“But my activities were limited,” she said.
Reese Crenshaw speaks positively about her time at Kutztown. Her daughter Celeste says that’s because her mom always likes to focus on the good parts of things.
But there were bad things, too, Celeste said.
Like on her first day on campus, while waiting in line to sign up for classes a guidance counselor approached Reese Crenshaw and told her she should be somewhere else. She suggested a historically Black school like Cheyney University.
“Being the first or the only of anything, there is some isolation to that,” Celeste said. “You do not have the normal college experience. There’s no sorority, you can’t date the people there.”
Reese Crenshaw admits there were some trying times at Kutztown, but they’re not what she chooses to remember. She focuses on the education she received and what it allowed her to do.
In the spring of 1950, Reese Crenshaw’s time at Kutztown came to an end. She finished with a degree in education, not knowing she was the first Black student to earn a degree from the institution.
“It wasn’t any dream that I was looking for, that I was going to be the first one,” she said. “That didn’t even cross my mind.”
Despite not realizing the importance of her graduation, Reese Crenshaw was thrilled by it nonetheless.
“I felt like, ‘Thank you God that I was able to achieve the dream,’” she said. “I was very happy and excited. It was a wonderful feeling.
“I was so excited that my mom could come to the graduation service, she worked so hard she was able to get to many things. When I marched down the aisle I said to her, ‘Mom, we did it.’”
Finally, a teacher
Reese Crenshaw planned to return to Reading after graduation to teach in the schools where she was once a student.
Things didn’t work out that way, at least at first.
Celeste said that her mother’s race threw a wrench in those plans. Although its student body was integrated, the district simply didn’t want to hire a Black teacher.
So Reese Crenshaw headed down to teach in a segregated school outside of Raleigh, N.C. Her daughter said it was a daunting situation.
“She taught kids who left midday to work in the tobacco fields,” Celeste said. “Most of them were two or three years behind where they should have been.”
Reese Crenshaw said she was just happy to be teaching.
“How does it feel to have your dream come true?” she said. “It’s wonderful.”
Reese Crenshaw continued with her own education in North Carolina, as well. She earned a master’s degree from North Carolina College at Durham and became a Sigma Gamma Rho sorority member.
In 1969, Reese Crenshaw’s journey finally came full circle when she returned to teach in Reading. She ended up spending the last 20 years of her career teaching third grade at 10th and Green Elementary School.
After retiring, she continued her commitment to education through her support of the “Help One Another” organization, which raises money to buy books for schoolchildren and provides funds for college scholarships and textbooks through the “Youth of Yesterday” program. She also volunteered her time with the Literacy Council of Berks County, Campfire Girls and the Black Heritage Center.
Honoring a pioneer
Hawkinson was not familiar with Reese Crenshaw’s story. The college president learned of it earlier this year when an interview with her was included in a Black History Month display at the school’s multicultural center. Hawkinson was moved by her tale and determined to share it.
He decided honoring Reese Crenshaw with the President’s Medal was a great way to do that.
“I was completely surprised, I’ll tell you,” Reese Crenshaw said about finding out she was being recognized. “I was like, ‘Wow, after all these years.’ I couldn’t believe it.”
Celeste said it’s an honor her mom certainly deserves. After all, she not only persevered and provided an education for all her students over the years, she also taught her own girls.
“The thing her mom did for her, teaching the importance of education, she did that for me and my sister,” she said, referring to her sister, Freda. “We knew we were going to college, there was no question about that.
“She was a tremendous influence on our lives.”
Reese Crenshaw said being awarded the President’s Medal provides her with a certain sense of validation. And even though she wasn’t trying to break new ground as she broke it, looking back on those days now fills her with pride.
“It makes you feel included,” she said of the recognition. “It makes you feel like you made a difference.”
Source: Berkshire mont