April 2011


The Mecca of Black Adventism

When this light was given me, I had never seen Huntsville.  I was shown that Huntsville would be a place of special interest to those who would act their part to help the colored people.                                                                                                                            -Ellen G. White

When you hear the word “Oakwood” what do you think of?  Some may pan back to memories of their college days with nostalgia—days of close friendships formed that have stood the test of time; studies that prepared them for the workforce; music and preaching, the likes of which they have not heard since; days when they first met Jesus; and for many, the place where they met the person that they were destined to spend the rest of their lives with.  And then others have images of Alumni Weekend, of the Von Braun Center downtown where thousands come from all over the globe to reconnect and worship, and walking on their beloved campus again.  Whatever Oakwood is to you, it is certainly the Mecca, the very heart of black Adventism.  How did Oakwood obtain this coveted and central status?

Oakwood’s Beginnings

In 1894 a small contingent of Adventist missionary launched out on the Mississippi River aboard the steamship Morning Star with the intent of evangelizing blacks in the South in the dangerous post-Civil War era.  The Southern Missionary Society, as this group was called, met with surprising success, and soon the need arose to educate the blacks who received the Adventist message.  In the racial climate of the day however, blacks could not safely attend most white institutions, so they needed their own school.

Finding a place for a school for blacks however, was not an easy task.  The site needed to be in a central location yet away from the cities, and in an area where a school of higher learning for blacks would not arouse white animosity.  In 1896 a 360-acre plot in Huntsville, Alabama, came to the attention of the General Conference.  An envoy of three men was sent to survey the land: O.A. Olsen, president of the General Conference; G.A. Irwin, director of the Southern District; and Harmon Lindsay, veteran church worker and former General Conference employee.

The property did not look promising.  The Alabama landscape was sloping and uneven; the red clay was hard as granite; and dense brush encircled the property.  Additionally, the site was the former home to a slave plantation in which the master, one James Beasley, was reported to have been the cruelest man around, whipping his slaves before the workday began.  Moreover, surrounding Madison County was known for occurrences of mutilation and lynching.

But Ellen G. White advised church leaders that God had revealed to her this was to be the spot for the school where African American Seventh-day Adventists would be educated and trained until the end of time.  So the General Conference purchased the old Beasley Estate in 1896.  The place was called Oakwood because of the 65 oaks that towered over the land.

Oakwood struggled in its early years.  The school’s first manager, J.J. Mitchell, quit after he saw the site.  The wells on the property could not be primed properly.  Hundreds of hours of labor were needed to clear weeds.  And the buildings on the property were in such decay that they required entire renovations.  But through prayer, hard work and vision, success was realized.  On November 16, 1896, the Oakwood Industrial School was open for business. 

Oakwood Begins to Establish Itself as the Mecca

At the turn of the century the majority of African Americans lived in the Southern United States.  Indeed, the black exodus to the North began in the 1890s, but only during World War I was there the huge population shift that is responsible for large numbers of blacks in the Northeast and Midwest, especially in cities like Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Detroit and Chicago.  The lure of employment combined with Southern racism spurred more than 6 million black people to move North from 1916-1960.

Oakwood got a good head start establishing itself as the hub of black Adventism before this exodus occurred.  It enjoyed the distinction of being the Seventh-day Adventist institution specifically catering to blacks at a time when most others did not even allow blacks to enroll, so the school was the choice for newly converted blacks who sought training in manual arts, agricultural engineering, nursing, teaching and the ministry.

As black Adventists migrated north, they stayed connected to Oakwood.  Adventist education, as opposed to education at a secular institution, was important to SDAs in the early twentieth century, perhaps more than it is now.  Black college-aged Adventists desired an education consistent with their faith, so Oakwood was their obvious choice. 

Additionally, during this period the practice of an individual newly baptized into the Adventism going directly to college came into its own.  Adventism is a religion of the intellect—a faith of the book, a system of finely related doctrines—so baptism went hand in hand with obtaining an education.  Because of this it seems only natural that an educational institution would become the Mecca.

And so in 1909 Oakwood graduated its first students, marking its success as an educational force.  A year later, the Negro Department of the General Conference was formed to deal uniquely with the growing issues of the black work.  This was an important development in black Adventism as evidenced by the black membership quadrupling in ten years and Oakwood given attention not afforded previously.    

Oakwood’s Renaissance

The 1920s through the 1940s was a time of renaissance for black Adventism and Oakwood much as the Harlem Renaissance was for black Americans at the time.  During this time Oakwood solidified itself as the hub of black Adventism due to several developments: obtaining some of the best minds in black Adventism, perhaps the world, to teach at Oakwood; a student strike in 1931; producing formative leaders; churning out stellar preachers; and blossoming into a musical powerhouse.

The Black Adventist Intelligentsia

Between the 1920s and 1940s legendary figures in the black Adventism (and several in American history) taught at Oakwood.  These individuals guided the school through some of Oakwood’s and America’s toughest years, especially when the Depression scourged the nation.  During this time Adventism’s black brain trust transformed Oakwood into a rich cultural center.  Here are a few legendary black Adventists from 1920-1945 that had to do with Oakwood’s flourishing.

Anna Knight is one of the most influential individuals in the history of Oakwood.  Born in Gitano, Mississippi, on March 4, 1874, Knight early developed an iron will and steel resolve that would characterize her life.  In 1901, after obtaining a nursing education under the tutelage of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg at Battle Creek College, Knight sailed to Calcutta, India, to do missionary work, becoming the second black Adventist sent by the Church on foreign missions.  Anna Knight was a fixture at Oakwood for nearly a half a century, beloved and respected, until her death in 1970.  Oakwood Elementary is named after Anna Knight.

Eva B. Dykes, born in Washington, D.C., on August 13, 1893, was another legendary Oakwood personality.  In 1921 Dykes received her PhD, the first black woman in the United States to do so.  In 1944 she left a professorship at Howard University to serve as the chair of the English Department and the Division of Humanities at Oakwood, and this sacrifice enabled Oakwood to receive accreditation and attain full college status.  Dr. Dykes also founded the Aeolians, Oakwood’s world famous chorale, in 1946.  After giving over four decades of her life to Oakwood, Dr. Dykes died on October 29, 1986, at the age of 93.  The Eva B. Dykes Library is named in her memory.

In the early 1930s the famed Harlem Renaissance writer Arna Bontemps taught at Oakwood.  Bontemps was a Seventh-day Adventist for a good portion of his life and attended San Fernando Academy and Pacific Union College (PUC).  Once graduated from PUC Bontemps taught at Harlem Academy for a number of years.  He was among the pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance during this time, influencing the likes of Langston Hughes, and collaborating with him on several books while at teaching English at Oakwood.  Bontemps went on to publish some 25 works, and taught for many years at Yale until his death.   

In the third decade of Oakwood’s existence its Theology Department distinguished itself for spiritual professors and producing highly effective evangelists.  C.E. Moseley, O.B. Edwards, and F.L. Peterson all taught theology at Oakwood in the 1920s and 30s.  These men, along with C.T. Richards, later, shaped decades of black Adventist preachers and theology.  In the 1936-1937 school year, another shaper of Adventist theology, Owen A. Troy, became Oakwood College’s first black business manager. Troy was the first person of any color in the Seventh-day Adventist denomination to earn a Doctorate of Theology, which he obtained from the University of Southern California in 1958.

The Strike of 1931

Perhaps the most important development in Oakwood’s renaissance was the student riots of 1931.  This period was a tumultuous time in black Adventism and American race relations.  In 1930 the influential and charismatic J.K. Humphrey and his Harlem SDA Church were disfellowshipped after they refused to submit their plan for an organization to aid blacks to the Greater New York Conference.  Closer to Huntsville, the notorious Scottsboro Trial began the year of the Oakwood student strike.

On October 8, 1931, Oakwood students refused to attend classes or work.  Among the students’ grievances were: white leadership (there had been no black president and the administration was mostly white); inadequate curriculum; a work load that left no time for studies; segregation (white and black teachers were to have no social interaction); suspect white teachers (students claimed the teachers were rejects from white Adventist colleges); unjust salaries (white teachers were paid more than black teachers); inattention to student concerns; and inadequate employment opportunities after graduation.  Many Adventists who would later became famous in the denomination and dedicate their lives to the gospel ministry were leaders in the strike, including Samuel Rashford, F.L. Bland and W.W. Fordham.

Ultimately the strike was successful.  A new era began at Oakwood in 1932 when J.L. Moran became Oakwood’s first black president and an entirely black faculty was installed.  Moran occupied this position until 1945, and the close of his tenure marked the beginning of Regional Conferences.  This was a time when blacks came into their own in the Adventist church, assuming leadership positions over their own constituencies.  With the assumption of the Oakwood presidency by Moran, Oakwood became a black-run institution, a symbol of black competence and ability amidst a region where such notions were not widely held.  This black ascension to leadership was critical in ushering in Regional Conferences in 1945.

Producing Formative Leaders

A word should be said here concerning Oakwood and black leadership.  Regional Conferences were vital to Oakwood becoming the Mecca of black Adventism for several reasons.  First, the conferences put the reigns of leadership in blacks’ hands.  Most of these leaders had met each other at and graduated from Oakwood College.  These leaders were bound to Oakwood, and directed their constituents to the school.  Second, Regional Conferences defined the racial lines in the Adventist Church.  Black students did not seek to attend white Adventist colleges as much because Oakwood was the school of the Regional Conferences (Southern College admitted its first black students in 1968).  Finally, Oakwood was the center of the Regional work, a place where Regional Conference leaders met and planned: In 1978, the Black Caucus of Seventh-day Adventist Administrators was organized at Oakwood College and in 2003 the Regional Conference Headquarters moved on campus.

Most black Adventist leaders graduated from Oakwood.  Among the most prominent are Calvin Rock, Charles Bradford, Rosa Banks, E.E. Cleveland and Charles Dudley.  These and other leaders have shaped Adventist policy and practices.  Oakwood has also produced leaders that have shaped secular policy, both nationally and internationally.  Such leaders are John Street, former mayor of Philadelphia; T.R.M. Howard, civil rights activist; Barry Black, Chaplain of the United States Senate; and Frank Hale—although not a graduate of Oakwood, he served as its president—former vice provost of Ohio State University; Earl Moore, civil rights activist; and Eardell Jenner Rashford, civil servant.  Oakwood has produced more black SDA leaders than any other institution.

Oakwood’s Pulpiteers

Preaching has always been an integral part of the Oakwood experience.  At almost every major Oakwood event, preaching is involved.  Moreover, a very high percentage of black Seventh-day Adventist pastors are educated at Oakwood, and they are, it may be said, the face of black Adventism.  Most black SDA preachers come back to Oakwood several times during a given year either for the annual Alumni Weekend, Pastoral and Evangelism Council or to drop off or pick up their children.  Several of Oakwood’s legendary preachers that attended Oakwood during its renaissance should be briefly highlighted.

In 1942 Oakwood graduated a young man named E.E. Cleveland.  In Cleveland’s more than 65 years of ministry, he baptized over 16,000 souls and wrote 14 books.  But perhaps his most enduring legacy was the troves of preachers he inspired and taught during his ministry. 

Charles Bradford is another Oakwood graduated pulpit legend.  Known for his verbosity throughout thunderous sermons, Bradford also attained administrative excellence, serving as President of the North American Division from 1980-1990.  In 1990 Bradford founded the Sabbath in Africa Study Group, formed to discover and broadcast Africa’s rich Christian history.

C.D. Brooks is the third of the trio of stellar Oakwood graduates of the 1940s that established Oakwood as the preaching capital of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Mecca of black Adventism.  In over 55 years of ministry and 12,000 baptisms, C.D. Brooks holds the unofficial distinction of having more of his sermons circulating in audio format than any other SDA preacher.  Brooks is perhaps best known for his 30 year tenure at Breath of Life, where he reached hundreds of thousands through his ministry. 

In 2006 Oakwood opened the doors to the Bradford-Cleveland-Brooks Leadership Center in honor of these three legends.  These men’s matriculation through Oakwood, their high regard for the college, and their consistent speaking engagements at the school for over a half a century, are one of the more important factors in Oakwood’s Mecca status.  Other important Oakwood-graduated preachers include Walter Pearson of Breath of Life; Henry Wright; and Barry Black, the first African American and military chaplain of the United States Senate.

These preachers consistently refer to their time at Oakwood with nostalgia and pride.  They also acknowledge it as a place where they were molded as individuals and as gospel ministers.  Oakwood is where they grew into men of God, and where they developed their theological groundings.  These preachers are indeed the molders of black Adventist theology, thus it may be said that Oakwood is the primary site in the formation of black Adventist theology.

Oakwood as Spiritual Center

Oakwood University is known for its spiritual impact on the world.  For over a century the school has been the place of conversion for thousands of students through Week of Prayers, campus ministries, dorm and general chapels, and the campus’ spiritual atmosphere.  Oakwood is by no means heaven, but countless students have reported arriving at Oakwood unconverted and leaving genuine Christians.

Oakwood, to a lesser or greater extent, determines the spirituality of the larger black Adventist membership and the general Adventist membership.  Alumni carry their fervent and unique brand of spirituality with them in their professions and spheres of influence and have a significant impact.  Theology majors from Oakwood pastor hundreds of Adventist churches and occupy positions of leadership in the church’s administration.  Other alumni such as Barry Black, former chaplain of the United States Navy and current chaplain of the United States Senate, and Wintley Phipps, distinguished vocalist and humanitarian, have shared the Adventist faith globally.

Oakwood as Musical Powerhouse

Music has been central in the African American experience.  Throughout its 113 year existence, Oakwood has enjoyed a reputation as the heart of Adventist music.  Many choirs have garnered Oakwood this distinction—the College Choir, Ars Nova Singers, Dynamic Praise—but one is most responsible for Oakwood’s international musical acclaim: The Aeolians.

As stated earlier, the influential Dr. Eva B. Dykes created The Aeolians in 1946.  While teaching English at Oakwood, Dykes directed the College Choir.  It was from this choir that Dykes selected a smaller, more elite ensemble.  Dykes, a student of Greek, called them Aeolians, a phrase associated with controlling wind.  The early Aeolians mainly sang spirituals under Dykes’ direction, which she used as a teaching tool for the black experience in bondage.  Each subsequent Aeolian director would make their unique contributions, but a few are worth noting here.

Joni Mae Pierre-Lois, Aeolian director from 1956-1965, oversaw what is called the “Aeolian Renaissance.”  It was during this period that the Aeolians began performing in cities across America received national exposure.  On December 13, 1964, the Aeolians appeared on national television performing the Messiah by Handel.  In 1965 the choir performed at New York World’s Fair and the NBC TV program “Strike it Rich.”  Some Aeolians of Adventist and secular fame during this period are Clifton Davis, Garland and Jaenette Dulan, Gwen Foster, Walter and Sandra Pearson, Gerald and Linda Pennick, John Street, and Henry and Carol Wright.

Under the direction of Jon Robertson (1968-1970) the Aeolians scored a number of important venues: Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium and New York’s Carnegie Hall.  A new chorale was also organized called Ars Nova Singers, whom a then unknown orator named Barry Black toured with. 

Alma Blackmon can be credited with making the Aeolians an international phenomenon.  She is the longest serving Aeolian director to date (1973-1985) and the most legendary.  During Blackmon’s tenure the ensemble performed more than 230 concerts in dozens of American and international venues, being praised in newspapers and magazines across the globe.  Seven albums were also produced and enjoyed good sales.  During this period notable Aeolians were Wintley Phipps and Mervyn Warren, Jr., of Take 6 fame.

The Aeolians are now world famous, having performed in myriad storied venues numerous times, including the White House, and receiving critical acclaim.  The Aeolians helped establish Oakwood as the Mecca of black Adventism by attracting people to Huntsville with musical prowess and developing talent.  Oakwood’s incredible musical legacy produced the likes of Little Richard, Wintley Phipps, Clifton Davis, Angela Brown, Janice Chandler, Take 6, Brian McKnight and Virtue.

Alumni Weekend: Black Adventism’s Pilgrimage      

In 1974 Oakwood began the traditional Alumni Homecoming Weekend, held annually over the Easter holiday.  Thousands of Oakwood alumni flock from the four corners of the globe to Huntsville for the weekend’s festivities, making it the largest annual gathering of out-of-town visitors in the city of Huntsville.  The main Sabbath service is held at the Von Braun Center downtown, although recently there has been a trend to bring big name preachers to other local churches for alternate services.  To date, Alumni Weekend has attracted more than 300,000 people in its 36 year history and is by far the largest gathering of black Seventh-day Adventists in the world. 

Pastoral and Evangelism Council and Campmeeting

In 1977 E.C. Ward, the pastor of the Oakwood College church, constructed the Oakwood College church building and the Moseley Complex.  Two years later the first Pastoral Evangelism Council was in the Moseley Complex.  This event brought all of the pastors in the Regional Conferences together for a week full of seminars and reports, along with of course the rousing preaching.  Aside from Alumni Weekend, this is the largest gathering of African American SDA ministers.

Also critical to Oakwood’s Mecca standing is the South Central Conference Campmeeting held there annually during the summer.  South Central is the territory where the African American Seventh-day Adventist work began in earnest with the efforts of the Southern Missionary Society.  From Mississippi, Nashville, and other parts south, the black work blossomed.  South Central is the outgrowth of such efforts.  Each summer campmeeting activities provide an opportunity for black Adventists worldwide to fellowship, share ideas, and gain spiritual renewal.

Oakwood Archives, E.G. White Estate and Other Developments

In 1970 Oakwood’s legendary librarian Janneth Lewis began to organize historical materials pertaining to black Adventism.  Serendipitously, the next year the Alabama Center for Higher Education was funded through Title III to establish archives in the state’s black institutions of higher learning.  In 1973 Oakwood’s vault—closed for 40 years—was opened and Mrs. Clara Rock, wife of then president Calvin Rock, discovered important historical materials.  That same year the University Museum Exhibit Room & Archives were opened at the dedication of the new Eva B. Dykes Library.  Mrs. Rock serving as archivist until 1988; next for 20 years Minneola Dixon served as archivist with distinction.  The Museum Exhibit Room & Archives house the largest collection of African American Seventh-day Adventist materials and Oakwood history paraphernalia and documents in the world.  Anyone wishing to do serious research on black Adventist history must visit the Archives at Oakwood.

More recently, in 1998 Oakwood opened an E.G. White Estate Brach Office on its campus.  Oakwood’s Branch Office contains any Ellen G. White reference material located in the main Silver Spring, Maryland, headquarters, making it an important research center for black Adventist. 

 In 2000 the Oakwood Memorial Gardens Cemetery was established, and many black Adventists have purchased plots.  Huntsville has always been one of the premier retirement spots for black Adventists because of Oakwood, its mild winters, and affordable housing.  This Cemetery makes the Huntsville area an even more attractive retirement spot for black Adventists. 

In 2003, the Regional Conferences moved their main headquarters to the northeast quadrant of the Oakwood College campus.  Oakwood has always been the source of Regional Conference leaders, now it houses its headquarters.

Oakwood’s Students

Of course the main element that makes Oakwood University the Mecca of black Adventism is its students.  Oakwood has graduated more black Adventists than any other institution on earth.  Indeed, Oakwood is not just the choice of American students; black Adventists (and increasingly non-Adventists) at Oakwood represent almost 50 countries annually, the largest contingents from Jamaica, Canada, Haiti, Bermuda and Trinidad.

Although Adventist college-aged youth are choosing to go to secular colleges more often these days, Oakwood still remains the premier choice for African American SDA youth.  Oakwood University’s current enrollment is close to 1,900 students, and since its founding, tens of thousands of black Adventists have matriculated through Oakwood, some finishing, some not, but all gaining the “Oakwood experience.”

Oakwood alumni go on to provide service to every area of the globe in nearly every capacity, enhancing Oakwood’s prestige and influence.  And they inevitably come back to Oakwood to visit.  Indeed, a visit to the Mecca is an essential experience for every Adventist.

-Benjamin J. Baker