Ray Crenshaw: Civil-rights pioneer, elder statesman, beloved mentor dead at 86

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
Ray Crenshaw

Longtime York City Councilman Ray Crenshaw was a quiet, persistent pioneer who helped break down racial barriers in the community and fought for equality and justice, say those who knew him.

Crenshaw, 86, died Sunday, Dec. 9, Boulding Mortuary of York confirmed.

"I often wonder, if not for Ray Crenshaw, where would I be?" said Bobby Simpson, CEO of Crispus Attucks Community Center.

"Where would Crispus Attucks be today?" Simpson continued. "There may not be a Crispus Attucks Center" today without Crenshaw's vision and determination.

Simpson said he met Crenshaw in the late 1960s after York City's race riots, when both men were involved with the Human Relations Commission and the charette, a series of meetings designed to help the community reconcile its past racial inequities and move forward.

"Ray was involved with Crispus Attucks all his life since he came to York, through Ms. Helen Thackston," who was a career day-care teacher at CA and who later had a city school named after her, Simpson said. "Ray's a lifer."

He was a "gentleman's gentleman" who carried himself professionally and who was fighting for civil rights in the York community long before people here knew his name, according to Simpson.

"He opened the door for a lot of things that happened," Simpson said. "We won't see that breed anymore. They don't exist, those kind of die-hard people who believed in principles and decency."

Crenshaw shrugged off critics because he knew he was on the right side of history, according to Simpson.

Council member: Crenshaw served on York City Council for eight years before stepping down to run for mayor of York City — he was the first black candidate for mayor in the city.

After losing the three-way election to John Brenner, Crenshaw didn't dwell on the loss. Instead, he looked toward the future:

"We made progress this time," he told The York Dispatch days after the defeat in November 2001. "I kind of cracked the door and now some young person has a better chance."

"He's been involved in civil rights in one way or another for as long as I've known him," York NAACP President Sandra Thompson said of Crenshaw, who served as president of the organization for four years, then served as an executive committee member.

Leader, mentor: Thompson, a local attorney, said she came to York in 1986 to attend college and met Crenshaw through her own volunteer work at Crispus Attucks.

"He was soft-spoken, but always heard," she said.

Crenshaw was well-known and much loved in the community as a mentor and a sounding board, she said, but she never heard him speak about his reasons for doing so.

"I think people like that don't speak about 'why' — they just 'do,'" Thompson said. "His goal was to make life in every capacity better for his community. From living to employment to economic advantages to political government. ... He took up the mantle."

Award namesake: His lifetime of quietly, but deliberately, taking on issues and taking care of business is one of the reasons former York City Mayor Kim Bracey's administration created the "Ray Crenshaw Neighborhood Awards" in 2016, Bracey said.

"He only wanted to do right by humankind — it didn't matter what the person looked like or their background," she said. "If they were wronged in some way, he wanted to make that right and would do all that he could (to make that happen)."

Bracey described Crenshaw as kind, gracious, patient and wise. She said the York community needs to recognize him as "the pioneer he was, and for the doors he opened for so many."

Crenshaw's community involvement  included working with the NAACP at the state level, serving on the Human Relations Commission, serving as head of York County's Democratic party, acting as a steward with Small Memorial AME Zion Church and being a member of the York County Community Against Racism.

Keeping up the fight: Thompson said Crenshaw always had a smile for everyone and always was eager to help those in need. Those qualities made him beloved by many in York, she said.

"He absolutely was loved by a lot of people, but those people need to put that love into action," Thompson said. "We have to recognize and respect his fight by continuing the fight. (We) should honor him by opening the doors he fought to open."

In a written statement, current York City Mayor Michael Helfrich said he was "blessed" to have had great conversations with Crenshaw, primarily about how to build a community where everyone is respected and where needs are met.

"What I know from the stories of others is that, from the time he was young, he dedicated himself to his neighbors and community. His work with Small Memorial AME Zion Church, the Masons, Department of Public Assistance, Crispus Attucks, the Governor’s Office, York City Council, and his run for mayor of York were always about the community first," Helfrich wrote. "I am certain that is how he will be remembered."

Business leader: Decades ago, Crenshaw co-owned a laundromat on Mount Rose Avenue. Bracey said she remembers going there with her mother.

Bracey recalled how great it was for her, as a child, to see a black-owned business.

"He loved York. He loved children. He loved the community," Bracey said. "That's what he was all about."

Crenshaw's business acumen helped keep Crispus Attucks a thriving community organization, according to Simpson.

In 1979, CA's primary funding source, the United Way of York County, threatened to pull its funding if the organization didn't have its community center up in running within six months, Simpson recalled. He said CA would have been destroyed if that had happened.

Protecting CA: That's when Crenshaw and Daniel Elby — who is still with CA and who now works in the nonprofit's Alternative Rehabilitation Communities program — went to Simpson's then-employer, Caterpillar Inc., and convinced the bosses there to grant Simpson a one-year leave of absence to focus all his attention on CA.

"Ray, myself and Dan Elby had a board retreat and said never again will one funding source have the ability to shut Crispus Attucks down," Simpson said, adding that Crenshaw's experience as a businessman helped with that process.

"Ray said we had to diversify ... and we strategized about how to diversify our funding streams," he said.

Simpson said he misses Crenshaw's friendship and counsel.

He said one could ask Crenshaw hard questions and always get honest answers, "whether you liked them or not."

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.