27 May In memory of Charles M. Crenchaw
On this Memorial Day I want to recognize the accomplishments of veteran Charles M. Crenchaw. In 1964 he became the first African-American to reach the summit of Mount McKinley, also known as Denali, the highest peak in North America. But in the years leading up to that historic climb during World War II Crenchaw served as a Master Sargent in the U.S. Army Air Corps. As flight engineer he was in charge of maintenance for a squadron of airplanes flown by the Tuskegee Airmen. An experiment designed to demonstrate the ability to black pilots to serve with distinction as officers and in combat the Tuskegee Airmen were credited with having flown many successful bomber escort missions over Europe. Performing their duties with valor this group of fighter pilots never lost a single plane under their protection though several of their number lost their lives.
After his military service Crenchaw attended Morehouse College under the GI Bill. Upon graduation he enrolled in the University of Chicago Graduate School of Engineering where he majored in industrial management. He completed his degree second in his class but was advised by the dean of students that, “being a negro,” he had little chance of getting a position in his field. Though discouraged from achieving success Crenchaw persisted and after working several jobs for which he was over qualified he landed a position at the Boeing Aircraft Company in Seattle where he worked in quality control for several key components of the Apollo space program.
Living in the Pacific Northwest Crenchaw developed an interest in climbing. In 1961 he joined the Seattle Mountaineers and became an avid outdoorsman. In 1963 he was one of the first climbers to be invited by team leader Alvin E. Randall to be part of an expedition the following year to climb Mount McKinley via the Karstens Ridge. A team of 15 including Crenchaw reached the summit on July 9th 1964.
With just a week before we head to Alaska for Expedition Denali I find myself pouring over the details of Crenchaw’s life and the circumstances of that climb almost 50 years ago. As we prepare to put the first team of African-American climbers on the summit I can’t help but be impressed by the importance of remembering our past and celebrating the the accomplishments of those who came before us. As we work to encourage future generations to seek out adventure and work to protect the natural places we love I have come to realize that we also must preserve in our memories these great stories of achievement. Happy Memorial Day!