Bessie Reese Crenshaw ’50, Kutztown University’s first African American graduate, was presented with the Kutztown University President’s Medal Thursday, August 25, at the President’s Residence.
Crenshaw graduated from Reading High School in 1946 and enrolled in Kutztown State Teachers’ College that fall; she was the only Black student enrolled at the time. In 1950, she became the first African American to graduate from the institution, earning a B.S. in education.
“When I entered Kutztown more than 70 years ago, I didn’t do it to be a maverick or a trailblazer – I did it because I saw education as the key to my future,” Crenshaw said. “I was willing to go to any lengths to pursue my dream of teaching, even if it meant feeling uncomfortable for a while. Many of the important things we accomplish in life do not come easy. Who I am and what I’ve accomplished is the sum of my experiences, along with the support of my friends and family. Attending Kutztown is part of my legacy. Thank you to President Hawkinson and Kutztown University for this wonderful award. I am sincerely grateful and thankful. I will never forget this day.”
“I felt inspired last spring when I read about Ms. Crenshaw’s life story,” said university president Dr. Kenneth S. Hawkinson. “Despite many challenges and even injustices in her life, she persevered and led a model life spent serving others. She greatly honors us by being willing to accept this medal and allow 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.”
From the time she was a young child, Crenshaw knew she wanted to be a teacher. To help fund her studies at Kutztown, she was a proud recipient of the J.F. Goodwin Scholarship, founded in 1936 by a young Black physician who wanted to help African American students realize their potential.
Upon graduation, Crenshaw found that Reading and Berks County were not ready to hire an African American teacher, so she began her career at the Berry O’Kelly School in Method, N.C., three miles from Raleigh. She taught a combined third and fourth grades class and later moved on to teach fifth grade. She received a master’s degree from North Carolina College at Durham and became a Sigma Gamma Rho sorority member.
Crenshaw returned to Reading in 1969, where she taught third grade for 20 years at 10th and Green Elementary School. After her retirement, she continued her commitment to education through her support of the “Help One Another” organization, which raises money to buy books for school children, 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.
Crenshaw currently resides in Bowie, Md., with her adult daughters.
The President’s Medal was created in 2014 by the president’s office to be awarded to individuals who bring honor and distinction to our institution and who serve as examples to our students and our alumni. Crenshaw is the seventh medal recipient, including William Ribble ’73, long-time member of the KU Foundation Board; Andre Reed ’05, KU Pro Football Hall of Famer; Ryan Vogelsong, Major League Baseball All-Star and two-time World Series Champion; Gregory “Doc” Jones, long-time head coach of the KU men’s rugby team; Dr. Carlson Chambliss, long serving KU professor, philanthropist and scholar; and most recently, Sandy Green, former mayor of Kutztown and community leader and advocate.