The Bethlehem Center's History
A place intentionally founded by God's people in the heat of racial and civil unrest, to bring hope and healing to a marginalized population.
The Bethlehem Center, located on West 38 Street, traces its roots to two women, from different walks of life who submitted to God's call to care for the fatherless.
Reverend Sallie Crenshaw
Rev. Sallie Crenshaw (pictured above) was the first African-American female minister in the East Tennessee Methodist Conference. In 1947, Sallie was sent by the Church to survey conditions in a badly neglected section of Chattanooga. Her survey resulted in The St. Elmo Mission.
Reverend Crenshaw “borrowed” a beer tavern on St. Elmo Avenue at 33rd Street that was closed by law on Sunday,and began the St. Elmo Mission with Sunday school there. Sixty-five children and five adults sat on up-ended beer kegs for Bible study and crackers and juice.
In December 1947, Reverend Crenshaw rented a dilapidated old home to house her mission. Mrs. Crenshaw had come to the conclusion that if the children in her Sunday school were hungry on Sunday,they were probably hungry every other day of the week as well. By springof 1948, she opened a day care center known as the Good Shepherd Fold that served 75-80 children every day.
Also in 1948, Mrs. Crenshaw bought a large vacant lot for $600.00, and in 1954 was able to build a new brick facility on it. The new building had three classrooms, a kitchen, an office, two bathrooms, and a large chapel. The Good Shepherd Fold day care program continued to serve as many as 130 children,both black and white.
"Only believe, only believe, all things are possible if you only believe."
Mrs. Miriam Brock
Mrs. Brock was the driving force behind the small group, which took out the charter for the center in August of 1920.
The Wesley Center served a neighborhood which had previously been known as “Hell’s Half-Acre.” Programs began in 4 housed at the corner of Polk and E 16th Street.In 1952 the building at 1024 East Main Street was occupied. The Volunteer Community School (formerly Ben Mott Center) housed its four and five year old class at Wesley Center.
In the summer of 1921 Mrs. Brock began a project for African-Americans with a bible study in the basement of Phillip’s Memorial Methodist Church. It formally opened in October 1921, at 1215 Grove Street and was supervised by the deaconess of the newly formed Wesley House with the addition of a Kindergarten class.
In 1926 the work was moved to 1401 College Street Miss Mary Caldwell generously donated a two story brick homemaking a memorial to her father, a minister of the Baltimore Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church.
On Nov. 13, 1960 the new building was dedicated and some new and exciting things began to happen! For example during the years of 1960-61 there were 665 memberships, 27 different classes and interest groups, and 34 clubs, as “The Beth” moved ahead.
The modern brick and concrete-block structure,containing approximately 17,500 square feet of floor space, replaced an old building at 1401 College Street. The large kitchen and dining room was able to seat 500 people. This was the largest such facility in Chattanooga to serve African-Americans for civic gatherings or conferences.Before the building of the Bethlehem Center,it was said that there was no place in Chattanooga where more than 100 African-Americans could meet and be served a meal. Mayor Olgiati gave tribute to Mrs. Brock at the dedication of the new $327,000 Bethlehem Center and during the dedication of the Bethlehem Community Center Mrs. Brock recognized all former staff. Having been personally involved with each staff member Mrs. Brock delivered a stirring account of the efforts made by dedicated staff to bring the Center’s efforts to a new facility.
With the additional space and accommodations the Bethlehem House became the Bethlehem Community Center- adding summer camps, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, outdoor play equipment,adult activities and meetings, and a host of other community development activities.The Miriam A. Brock Wesley Center merged with the Bethlehem Community Center in 1967. That year the Wesley and Bethlehem Center boards merged to become the Methodist Neighborhood Centers, Inc. Later in 1969 the Good Shepherd Fold Day Care was added to form the United Methodist Neighborhood Centers, Inc. When the Good Shepherd Fold Day Care program was moved to the Bethlehem Center building in 1986 the building was renamed the Sallie Crenshaw Bethlehem Community Center, carrying on “Miss Sallie’s” work. Rev. Crenshaw continued to serve the community as a Minister until she retired in 1971, but continued to serve as a Board member for the merged Centers. The mergers placed a substantial share of Methodist social service work in this area under unified direction. As Methodist funds were reduced more responsibility was replaced on local funding sources.
Later, the charter was amended to change the name of the ministry to United Methodist Neighborhood Centers, Inc., as the ministry is currently known.