NOTE: When Rebekah and I moved to Brandon in 1996, two of the most welcoming people at First Presbyterian Church were Roy and Virginia Crenshaw. Wednesday afternoon, after a lengthy illness, Roy’s beautiful life drew to a close.
There’s a lot that could be said about Roy Crenshaw, and I’m sure that it will be. But for today I’d like to share the following newspaper article from 2004, when I profiled Roy (and Virginia) for the Brandon edition of The Tampa Tribune. The title of the column was “Nothing But Blessings.”
NOTHING BUT BLESSINGS: Roy and Virginia Crenshaw are a remarkable couple. To know them is to un-shutter a window into the past, develop insight into the present, and revive hope for the future.
Roy was born in Charleston, Missouri, in 1922. He grew up in Southern Indiana, raised in a harsh culture of segregation. Learning all he could, he won acceptance to Franklin College. Reality, however, closed that door as soon as it opened, and he applied his considerable gifts to the Civilian Conservation Corps, first managing inventory and then becoming qualified in electronics.
MARRIED: At the onset of WW2, Roy Crenshaw moved to Dayton, Ohio, continuing his training. It was there he met his bride, Virginia, a Dayton native and student at St. Clair College. After a stint in the post office, Roy entered government service, a venue less inclined to discriminate than private industry.
In the early 60’s, the government needed Roy’s expertise with missile guidance systems, so the family prepared to move to Newark, Ohio. There, local realtors described a variety of available properties. When they met the Crenshaws in person, and discovered their race, the listings always evaporated.
For a year, Virginia stayed in Dayton with the children. Eventually, unwilling to live apart, they settled on a cramped and run-down house.
The couple knew it would take more than demonstrations and Supreme Court decisions for segregation to end. The imperative lay with citizens courageous enough to risk everything. It took people like the Crenshaws, people simply willing to take a risk and begin to live as if the ideal of integration really worked.
BREAKING GROUND: Rejecting the idea of a thirty-mile drive to worship, they looked around Newark. One Sunday morning, having found a receptive pastor, the family showed up at a Caucasian downtown church.
“Just watch what I do,” Roy told his four children. “If I do nothing, you do nothing; if I run, you run; if I fight, you fight.”
Despite a cold reception, one elderly lady welcomed the family as they left the sanctuary. It was enough, and they returned. They soon became the congregation’s first black members. Later, Roy was elected an elder. “It was not easy,” they said, “and we were criticized by the black community. But it was the right thing to do.”
There, in the context of faith, the family began to build relationships, one at a time. Simple friendship is an approach the Crenshaws still believe to be the single most effective tool for social justice.
“We knew we had to open some doors for the next generation, for our children, and for us to live peacefully,” they said.
One night, friends from a white neighborhood walked through the snow to tell the Crenshaws they were moving. “Forget the realtor, we’d like to sell our home directly to you,” they said. Consequently, the family was able to live in adequate housing for the first time since they left Dayton.
Virginia worked as a homemaker, a volunteer, and then director of a small medical clinic. Together, they served on the cutting edge of Civil Rights advances that fundamentally changed the social landscape. “Newark was a test of fire,” they said, “it prepared us for everything else we would face in life.”
It was there that Roy made a crucial career change, “The Lord just opened up things, and I got into personnel administration.” The path was set for an extraordinary chapter in the story of their life together.
The Crenshaws volunteered for overseas service, launching a saga of travel and adventure that did as much to shape their thinking as the ongoing struggles with sectarianism in Indiana and Ohio.
FAR EAST: Assigned to Japan, the couple sought housing off base, so they could directly experience the culture. “If we were going to be in a foreign country, we wanted to live like the local people.”
In order to rent a house, they first had to pass muster with the community leader. This involved, more than anything, respect. The Crenshaws learned an elaborate tea ceremony, brought gifts for the twelve immediate neighbors, memorized a complex greeting in the local dialect, and bowed lower than the host when introduced. Virginia even consented to walk behind her husband, not an easy exercise for an American woman who understood the downside of deference only too well.
The plan succeeded, establishing a pattern of interaction with other cultures they repeated throughout the Far East, where Roy continued his work as a supervisory classification specialist in Korea and the Philippines.
In every setting, these emissaries of America took deliberate steps to engraft themselves into the local culture, to value the customs, and to learn all that they could from everyone they met.
The stories are endless, but the message is consistent. Roy and Virginia Crenshaw love and respect other people, no matter what their cultural background. It is a truth that defines them, as well as their experience of the world.
Roy Crenshaw returned to Newark in 1983, where he served as the Air Force Station’s Equal Employment Opportunity chief until his retirement in 1984.
BRANDON: Here in Brandon, the couple has continued their quiet but eloquent commitment to social justice through personal relationships, volunteer work, civic organizations and, most especially, the ministries of their church (First Presbyterian of Brandon).
Over the years, the Crenshaws have traveled to 48 states, and over thirty nations. They are always open to learn. “All this we have done has just been blessing after blessing,” they said. “It’s just been a walk with God, that’s all there is to it.”